Rob Parry-Jones is Lead, International Policy at the WWF / TRAFFIC Wildlife Crime Initiative, WWF International, Switzerland. Aled Williams is Senior Advisor at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway.
– Wildlife trafficking is high on conservation and political agendas. It is also increasingly high on the global crime agenda. Rightly so: corruption was identified recently by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as the main enabler of wildlife trafficking – one of the largest transnational criminal activities in the world.
But not so long ago, one couldn’t even mention the word corruption in relation to conservation and wildlife crime; it was too sensitive.
So it is an important development that for the first time, the issue of corruption will be formally debated at the world’s most important wildlife trade meeting – the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which starts on September 24th – where the European Union and Senegal put forward a resolution concerning measures to tackle corruption in wildlife trafficking.
Yet corruption’s role in facilitating illicit wildlife trade is far from breaking news.
The CITES’ index of the ‘Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants’ correlates strongly with Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI): countries with high elephant poaching rates have low CPI scores.
Meanwhile, some captive breeding facilities for birds and reptiles have long been suspected of laundering wild specimens as captive bred through the use of fraudulently issued CITES permits. This will be taken up as a separate issue at the CITES CoP.
Today, corruption is finally being recognised in the highest level global policy agreements as a threat to wildlife, peaceful societies and development, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the UN General Assembly Resolution on Tackling illicit trafficking in wildlife and the Doha Declaration from the 13th UN Crime Congress.
However, references to ‘corruption’ as a seemingly aggregate phenomenon create a daunting impression of an impenetrable monolith.
This certainly hasn’t helped move the wildlife trafficking and anti-corruption discourse forward. The very real fears in some countries about staff safety, and concerns about losing mission focus may also explain why the conservation community has been hesitant to engage more meaningfully in anti-corruption strategies.
But if we unpack the term ‘corruption’, it becomes more digestible, although it remains a complex problem manifested in many forms (i.e. wildlife guards paid off by poachers, customs officials turning a blind eye to illegal shipments, and judges handing down inappropriately lenient sentences).
Corrupt behaviour occurs along the entire wildlife trafficking value chain, undermining the efforts of the many committed officials. Given the potential for ‘blind-spots’ within the anti-corruption and wildlife conservation communities, close collaboration is absolutely critical. The Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, Transparency International and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) convened a broad stakeholders meeting in early 2016 to cement a new alliance between the two communities, forming the 3C Network: Countering Conservation-related Corruption.
Targeting corrupt behaviour requires knowledge of what is taking place, where, how and for what purpose. Uninformed interventions run the risk not only of displacing illegal acts, but also of creating further harm. Already marginalized indigenous peoples and local communities may be brutalized, and low-level actors like poachers and vehicle drivers targeted, while those controlling the illegal trade – and financially benefitting – remain untouched.
Investigations into financial crime would help identify the controllers of wildlife crime as well as their support networks; it would also bring in to play a different suite of laws, with harsher penalties. Such investigative routes also lead higher up the food chain, potentially into grand corruption and the further challenges that brings. Full use of asset seizure powers would also help to disrupt the business of the wildlife traffickers and those whom they corrupt.
There is a long road ahead to understand the entry points for addressing corruption and wildlife trafficking, and to develop the evidence base for what works where, and why. Taking no action is no longer an option. This is why the CITES resolution proposed by the EU and Senegal is such an important and welcome development: the anti-corruption in wildlife trafficking journey is building momentum.