Markets for Wildlife Products in Asia Continue to Threaten Wildlife Resources in Africa

6th September 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

The International Police Organisation (INTERPOL) General Secretariat will be hosting the 7th International Conference on Environmental Crime as well as the 22nd Wildlife Crime Working Group meeting in Lyon, France from 13th to 17th September 2010. The conference recognises that environmental crime such as illegal trade of wildlife products is a serious and growing international crime, with criminals violating both national and international laws and treaties that are in place to conserve the environment and natural resources therein. Thus, the transnational nature of environmental crime calls for the need for coordination and collaboration at the national, regional and international levels to combat this crime. This makes the Lyon conference important as it brings together environmental law enforcement officers and stakeholders to discuss and deliberate on issues related to environmental crime management.

The problem of environmental crime has been growing over time, which necessitated INTERPOL's General Assembly to adopt a resolution that established an Environmental Crime Committee in 1992 to oversee all issues related to environmental crime in the member states. In the same efforts in 2009 INTERPOL General Secretariat established an environmental crime programme to mobilize the environmental law enforcement community and stakeholders globally to combat the scourge.

The conference in Lyon therefore is expected to bring together many of the world's environmental law enforcement agencies and stakeholders who will share expertise, experience and knowledge ranging from identification, investigation, and prosecution of environmental crimes. It is further expected that the conference will improve and enhance coordination, cooperation and collaboration between and among environmental law enforcement agencies within INTERPOL's 183 member states.

However, while the world recognises the efforts that INTERPOL has been making to fight and combat environmental crime, there are still some challenges. The growing trade of wildlife products such as ivory and rhino horns means there is demand for the products in some parts/regions of the world, which therefore provide reliable and competitive markets. In the past two years, for instance, the world has witnessed the seizures of thousands of kilograms of ivory and rhino horns in Asia, which are believed to have originated from the Eastern Africa region, Nairobi being the main point of exit. The seizures reveal that some countries in Asia provide safe havens for the environmental criminals to trade and sell wildlife products.

According to the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF), between January 2009 and June 2010 there were 14 international seizures, most of them in Asia, involving over 21 000kg of ivory and rhino horns. These ivory and rhino horns, which were believed to have had originated from eastern Africa were seized in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand and Philippines. Similarly, in August 2010 over 2100kg of ivory and 75kg of rhino horns destined to Malaysia were seized at Jommo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), Nairobi, Kenya. These and other seizures are testimony that there are high demands for wildlife products especially ivory and rhino horns in Asia. The question is whether governments in the Asian region are committed to fight and combat the scourge or whether they are part of the criminal syndicates. Reports show that INTERPOL networks conducted all international seizures, which indicates that fewer efforts are put in place by governments of countries at the destination, in this case Asian countries, to combat this illegal trade. Similarly, there are allegations that investigations of these environmental crimes, after seizures, have been delayed due to inadequate cooperation from investigators and institutions from source countries.

The continued trade in wildlife products from Africa to other regions of the world is due to a number of drivers including high profits that the perpetrators of environmental crimes generate from this illegal business. According to LATF a kilo of ivory, which is bought at $20 in Africa fetch over $1500 in the wealthy markets in countries like Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Philippines and Vietnam.

Other drivers of illegal wildlife trade from Africa include the richness of the continent in terms of biodiversity including wildlife resources. Africa therefore provides potential sources of illegal wildlife products. Porous borders are another driver for continued environmental crime in Africa. Although borders are important tools for controlling movements of people and goods from one political entity or legal jurisdiction to another, Africa has long borders, which are unmanned, which enable environmental criminals to cross over without restrictions. Similarly, environmental criminals utilise weaknesses in import and export procedures both at the origin and destination countries to conduct their illegal trade in and out of countries. There also allegations of corruption practices where environmental criminals are believed to collude with law enforcement officers at the source, transit and destination points such as airports to evade apprehension and prosecution. In some instance environmental criminals/syndicates penetrate the political spheres, through corruption, to win/buy political patronage for immunity from exposure and prosecutions.

Since the economy of Africa particularly sub-Saaran Africa is highly dependent on exploitation of natural resources, continued environmental crime is likely to hinder economic development and peace on the continent. This therefore calls for concerted efforts by governments through judiciary, legal and security experts including environmental law enforcement agencies to come up with results-oriented strategies for curbing environmental crime. This will require political will, cooperation and common understanding among and between environmental law enforcement agencies and institutions in Africa and other parts of the world. Thus INTERPOL's conference on environmental crime and Wildlife Working Group meeting in Lyon is a commendable effort in coordinating environmental law enforcement agencies, institutions and stakeholders in curbing cross-border environmental crime.

Written by: Donald Anthony Mwiturubani, Senior Researcher, Environmental Crime Programme, Nairobi Office