Illegal wildlife trade is a serious crime and in most jurisdictions there is legislation in place to prevent it. At international level, violations of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates exports, imports and re-exports of wildlife are also considered a crime.
The 182 countries which are members to CITES have taken forward relevant national legislation which penalises illegal wildlife trade and requires the confiscation of the relevant materials and articles. About 80% of signatories to CITES fully or partly meet these two requirements with more members taking action every year .
The problem is getting worse
Authorities across the globe have been trying to tackle illegal wildlife trade since the 1960’s but today we are witnessing an unprecedented rise in illegal wildlife trade. In an effort to raise awareness, the United Nations have dedicated 2016 to highlighting the cost of illegal trade of wildlife and what we can do to combat it.
According to Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network, any number of middlemen may be involved in wildlife trade such as collectors of wildlife, to specialists involved in storage, handling, transport, manufacturing, industrial production, marketing and others involved in the export and retail businesses and the ultimate users. Most of us are probably part of the wildlife trade supply chain in some way, even if it just as end consumers of wildlife products .
So, yes, illegal wildlife trade is a serious crime and for many reasons, beyond those that you would normally suspect.
The leading threat to species
When Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the illegal wildlife trade in 2012 as ‘a global challenge that spans continents and crosses oceans’, she was clear this meant that illegal wildlife trade should no longer be viewed exclusively as an environmental concern .
It is very much true that illegal wildlife trade is the second-biggest direct threat to species after habitat destruction and some endangered species are in even greater peril. For example, more than 25% of the world’s elephant population has been killed in the last ten years whereas rhinos are being killed at a rate of over 25% every year for the last decade .
But just as important as the devastating effects on biodiversity is the evidence that illegal wildlife trade erodes state authority, it fuels civil conflict and threatens national stability provoking substantial economic losses .
A national security issue
Incidents of poaching on an industrial scale are now being reported, for example, poachers linked to the Janjaweed from Sudan and Chad allegedly killed over 86 elephants, whereas in 2012, 650 elephants were killed in Cameroon’s Bouba N’Djida park by heavily armed poachers. These incidents of illegal wildlife trade are not driven by opportunism or poverty; they form part of the operations carried out but by armed non-state actors and organized groups .
Illegal wildlife trade today involves poachers, armed non-state actors, international crime groups whose illegal efforts are facilitated through institutional corruption across global network chains and a range of players involved in demand countries. It was this very serious aspect of illegal wildlife trade that prompted Mrs Clinton to describe this phenomenon as ‘a national security issue, a public health issue, and an economic security issue’ .