Combating illegal wildlife trade and illegal wildlife trafficking

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Caroline Edey-Van Wyk | Digital Content Specialist | Investec | mail me


Valued at around $23-billion, illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most profitable criminal trafficking enterprise worldwide, yet it’s not given the prominence it deserves. But things are changing.

In a first-of-its-kind meeting in SA, the financial sector, government and law enforcement met to discuss ways to combat the industrial theft of wildlife.

Understanding the scale of the problem

Illegal killing and trading of wild animals is a global crisis, with species being hunted to extinction for their horns, skins, and teeth.

Due to its abundant wildlife, South Africa has become a global hotspot for poaching syndicates, with rhino, lion, elephant, and pangolins the most prolific targets.

However, wildlife crime is a far more destructive and pervasive force than many believe. According to a study by US and UK scientists, quoted by the BBC, at least one in five vertebrate species on Earth are bought and sold on the wildlife market.

These astonishing figures far exceed previous estimates and highlight the extent of the global problem, with illegal wildlife trade (IWT) tracked to diverse regions including the Andes mountain range, Amazon rainforest, sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and Australia.

In fact IWT is currently a leading cause of animal extinction, along with loss of habitat due to land development.

A coordinated response to get the upper hand

The world’s best opportunity to combat IWT is to create a community of interested parties that can collaborate to stymie the movement of illegal wildlife products from source to destination via commercial transport routes, and halt the financial flows associated with this illegal trade.

To this end, The Royal Foundation, spearheaded by HRH The Duke of Cambridge, established a Transport Taskforce in 2016 and, more recently, a Financial Taskforce, both operating under the United for Wildlife banner.

The initiative aims to create a platform for impact by bringing together private, public and third-sector partners that can work individually and cooperatively to reveal, disrupt and prevent illegal wildlife trafficking. Our ambition is to make it impossible to use private-sector infrastructure to facilitate the financing and transportation of IWT products. It is also vital to combine intelligence from the transport and financial sectors to connect, intercept and hopefully bring down the wider criminal network.

– Rob Campbell, Programme Manager, United for Wildlife Task Force

Bringing the right players together to share intelligence

To date, there are 38 signatories to the Financial Taskforce, including three South African banks, namely: Investec, ABSA and Standard Bank. But given the scale of wildlife pillage that happens out of Africa, particularly Southern Africa, there’s an urgent need for more financial institutions to get involved.

At the January 28 meeting – a first of its kind in Africa – facilitated by United for Wildlife, and hosted by us, there were a number of financial institutions who showed interest in becoming signatories, and post the meeting Grobank Ltd, became the latest member.

I’m very excited because we’ve been doing this work for such a long time and when we meet it’s always the same people. What we need are new players and that’s what we’re seeing with the financial sector getting involved. They’re coming in and saying they’ve got something to add and contribute to what we are doing. We’ve been talking about collaboration for so long, but now we are actually seeing it.

– Frances Craigie, Chief Dir of Enforcement, Dept of Environmental Affairs

We look for numerous red flags when it comes to IWT, including transactions that don’t support a client’s business model, and large cash deposits, especially among clients who own game farms. In addition to screening clients against criminal databases to reduce fraud risk, our intention is to incorporate additional lists that identify poachers and traffickers, such as those from Wildlife Trusts.There are opportunities to leverage technology and integrate mixed media into our analysis to potentially associate clients with reports on IWT cases.

– Gerald Byleveld, Group Money Laundering Reporting Officer, Investec

However, more can and will be done to embed IWT into the bank’s systems and processes to better detect suspicious activity linked to wildlife crime, and hopefully reduce the knock-on effect it has on the South African economy through its impact on tourism and job creation in the wildlife industry.

China key to UFW task-force effectiveness

Since their inception, the task forces have grown from 12 private sector companies to over 150, which represent the global shipping, airline, and financial industries.

Over the last four years, United for Wildlife has also established a global footprint that today includes government bodies, law enforcement and NGOs, and in 2019 secured an important participant in the form of its first Chinese bank.

Wildlife trafficking was also included as a priority by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is currently under Chinese presidency until July 2020.

Gaining support from China was the final piece in the puzzle for us. The strength of these associations gives United for Wildlife the soft power to lean on other governments to affect change.

Adding the Chinese-led FATF to the collaborative efforts already underway within various global industries and sectors should prompt more governments to take action and allocate additional funds and resources to combat the issue.

To date, the task-force’s efforts have supported over 70 investigations, contributed to 18 trafficker arrests, intercepted 108 shipments and played a key role in disrupting a major international ivory, rhino horn, and heroin syndicate in East Africa.The United for Wildlife programme also helps to facilitate innovation in the fight against IWT with the use of modern technologies. For example, Taskforce members are involved in a project at O.R. Tambo International Airport to develop a scanning system that can detect ivory and rhino horn, which would be a first in the world. By going after wildlife smugglers, we can also pursue other crimes that are much higher on countries’ national security radar, like terrorism and drug smuggling.

– David Fein, Vice-Chair, United for Wildlife Financial Taskforce

Illegal wildlife trafficking

Illegal wildlife trade is the so-called ‘soft underbelly’ of transnational crime. It operates within the same framework, the same scale and with the same players who commit other transnational organised crime.

The risk-benefit ratio for illegal wildlife trafficking has until now favoured the traffickers. That’s a problem, but we also see it as an opportunity because there’s already a lot of intel being captured on the ground, it just needs to be handed up to the right channels.

From the meeting, there was a really positive response from banks, conservationists and law enforcement wanting to collaborate. There’s obviously a lot more than still needs to be done, and time isn’t on our side, but progress is being made.

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