Interpol alert

Raymond E. Kendall
describes international efforts to beat the illegal wildlife trade

Poaching elephants and rhinoceroses in Africa, trafficking in bears’ gall bladders and tiger parts, and smuggling rare parrots captured in the rainforests of Brazil are but a few examples of the world’s illegal trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora.

Wildlife crime is international, and cooperation between national and international law enforcement is essential if we are to come to grips with it, as with any kind of organized crime. It is a relatively new crime area for law enforcement agencies worldwide. A resolution asking member countries to cooperate in cases related to wildlife crime was adopted at the Interpol General Assembly in 1976.

This type of crime has received an increasing amount of attention from the public, politicians, and subsequently the law enforcement community, since the beginning of the 1990s. Separate law enforcement units investigating wildlife crime have been established in some countries, though others still lack appropriate legislation and enforcement structures.

Wildlife crime is a general phrase covering such different kinds of criminal activity as poaching, capture/collection from the wild, smuggling, possession, and illegal import or export of endangered species of wild fauna and flora. The criminal activities differ from country to country, depending on the fauna and flora available. They include, to mention just a few examples: poaching elephants and rhinoceroses in Africa (for the illegal traffic in ivory and rhinoceros horn); smuggling rare parrots captured in the rainforests of Brazil; smuggling caviar from the Caspian Sea area; the illegal trade in shahtoosh shawls made from the wool of the Tibetan antelope; smuggling tortoises, turtles and other reptiles; smuggling of cacti and cycads; the illegal trade in bears’ gall bladders and tiger parts; and the illegal collection of wild birds’ eggs.

The numbers of some endangered species have recently diminished significantly and illegal hunting is one factor behind this dramatic decline in numbers. For example, there are now estimated to be about 2,200 black rhino compared with 65,000 in 1970.

Prices on the black market are high for these rare animals, plants and products and – as in any other kind of crime – criminals are attracted by the profits available. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, a Komodo dragon – the world’s largest lizard – and the tuatara – a reptile that is one of the Earth’s oldest species – fetch approximately $30,000 each on the black market, while the radiated tortoise from Madagascar sells for about $5,000.
It is urgent that all Parties develop proper enforcement structures

Illegal trafficking is often carried out by professional couriers who, for a fixed price, smuggle animals or plants from country to country concealed in their vehicles, their luggage, or on their bodies. Other smuggling methods are to use shipping containers (e.g. for illegal ivory traffic) or the express dispatch services system.

The main ‘producing’ countries are in Africa, South and Central America and Asia, while the main ‘consumer’ markets are in Europe, North America, and the Middle and Far East (Japan, the Republic of Korea and China). Some countries, such as Canada and Australia, may be categorized as both producing and consuming.

Criminal networks
In some cases we have seen links with organized crime, the drug trade, illegal possession of weapons and money-laundering. Illegal traders often resort to fraud, making false statements to the authorities, and forging documents to promote their unscrupulous business. Like most criminals today, they also use the new information technology, such as the Internet, and modern communication techniques (e-mail, fax and mobile phones) to facilitate their illegal trade across the globe.

Interpol is actively engaged in the fight against wildlife crime because national and international law enforcement cooperation is essential to combat it. The first meeting of the Interpol Sub-Group (now the Interpol Working Group on Wildlife Crime) was held in The Netherlands in 1994 and was attended by experienced wildlife crime investigators from all parts of the world. The Working Group’s objectives are to:

  • Improve the exchange of information (including criminal intelligence) on persons and companies involved in the illegal trade in wild flora and fauna.

  • Support investigations into illegal activities related to wildlife crime by improving national, regional and international law enforcement.

  • Exchange information on methods and trends in this illegal trade with the purpose of developing a more proactive approach.

  • Develop training and information documents needed for the investigators.
It meets on a regular basis and is now also planning to establish regional wildlife crime working groups for law enforcement officers.

Since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) entered into force in 1975, all Parties ratifying it have been obliged to introduce their own national laws to penalize the illegal trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora. Unfortunately, so far, not all Parties have established the appropriate legal framework at national level. This means that, in some countries, the enforcement structure is non-existent.

It is urgent, therefore, that all Parties develop proper enforcement structures and that the appropriate laws are internationally harmonized. Interpol is working very closely with the CITES Secretariat on the enforcement issues of the Convention. This cooperation has resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which was signed by the CITES Secretariat and the Interpol General Secretariat in October 1998.

Although this MOU is not formally binding on the national authorities, it urges the CITES authorities and law enforcement agencies – police and customs – to work closely together in each country in order to combat wildlife crime more effectively. The Practical Guide on Co-operation between the CITES Management Authorities and Interpol is now available in English, French, Spanish and Arabic and will be distributed to the appropriate authorities in the spring of 2000.

Common obligation
Safeguarding the environment and protecting the planet is an obligation for us all. As law enforcers we can make a difference to the illegal trade in endangered species by ensuring that those who break the law are adequately dealt with and that proper sanctions are imposed.

It is imperative that we raise awareness of the disastrous effects of wildlife crime. We must make the world realize the importance of preventing the illegal trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, and of taking effective law enforcement measures against these crimes to bring the perpetrators to justice. Extinction is final: if we wish to protect and preserve the natural heritage for generations to come, we have to act now  

Raymond E. Kendall is Secretary-General of the International Criminal Police Organization, Interpol.

PHOTOGRAPH: Zsolt Sovari/UNEP/Topham

INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization, which has a membership of 178 countries, aims at ‘ensuring and promoting the widest possible mutual assistance between all criminal police authorities, within the limits of the laws existing in the different countries and in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. Its vision is to help create a safer world by optimizing the international effort to combat crime.

The Interpol General Secretariat currently processes about 2.5 million messages a year, whilst the General Secretariat database contains over 300,000 criminal files.

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads | Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre

Complementary articles in other issues:
Edgardo Gomez: Fragile coasts (Oceans) 1998
Dave Stirpe: Smugglers beware! (Ozone) 1997
Susan Hazen: Environmental democracy (Chemicals) 1997