Wildlife black markets and the political economy of illegal trade

Combatting illegal wildlife trade requires coordinated transnational action

Lorraine ElliottIn September this year, Prince William announced that his Royal Foundation would collaborate with leading conservation NGOs to combat illegal wildlife trafficking under the banner ‘United for Wildlife’. Later the same month, the Clinton Global Initiative announced its new ‘Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants’. The media has also reported on elephants dying from cyanide poisoning at waterholes, exponential increases in rhino poaching (more than 700 killed already this year in South Africa alone) and fears that forest elephants could be wiped out in Gabon. Major seizures of illegal wildlife products have been announced by customs officials in Hong Kong and Thailand. And, at the April meeting of the UN’s Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, governments called for the illegal trade in protected wildlife to be recognised as a serious crime as defined by the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Something is clearly going on and we need to understand it better. There is emerging a transnational market in lootable commodities – those that deliver high profits for small(ish) costs. On the one hand, the economic barriers to extraction are low, or at least lower than for other illicit commodities. It is common, for example, to see reports that powdered rhino horn is worth more than class A drugs or gold on the black market. The other side of this equation is that the ‘investment’ (for want of a better word) is comparatively lower for rhino poaching than it is for, say, illicit drug manufacturing. These are also uncritical markets – there will be buyers prepared to pay for what they want and caring little for the fact that wildlife products are sourced or transported illegally. In economic terms demand is inelastic and insensitive to price, though this is perhaps truer for high-status products, such as tiger skins or ivory, than for the illegal pet trade.

The exposure of this illegal trade – something often overlooked by political economists – is to be welcomed. But there are gaps in the media coverage. As a result, rather more heat than light has been thrown upon the nature of wildlife black markets. Here, then, in no particular order, are five aspects of the illegal wildlife trade to take into account.

First, illegal wildlife trade is not a new problem. International concern dates at least to the early 1960s when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature called for a treaty to address illegal exports and imports of endangered or vulnerable species. It took another 10 years before the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was finally adopted.

The focus on charismatic mega-fauna – and this is the second point – diverts attention from a substantial black trade in less iconic species. In recent weeks, Swiss Customs has announced the results of its investigations into a sophisticated ring smuggling considerable quantities of rare birds’ eggs from South America. Earlier this year, coastguards in Taiwan and authorities in Indonesia intercepted consignments of illegally smuggled turtles. The list goes on: 6.7 tonnes of dried tokay geckos bound for Hong Kong from Indonesia; thousands of pangolin smuggled alive and dead from Southeast Asia; sea horses being smuggled through Nepal (hidden in gas cylinders); Lear’s macaws – which can fetch $US 60,000 each on the black market – intercepted in the Czech Republic.

As these examples indicate (point three), the illegal wildlife trade is not confined to Africa or even developing countries. The International Fund for Animal Welfare reports the United States and the European Union as the second and third largest destination markets after China. Developed countries are also part of the supply chain – poachers are turning to bears from North America to supplement global illicit demand for bile and gall for the traditional medicine market; insects and reptiles are smuggled out of Australia and New Zealand; birds of prey from the UK into the Middle East falconry market.

The fourth aspect of note is that, while some wildlife smuggling is opportunistic, low-value and involves few individuals, this is generally an area of illegal trade that is sophisticated and complex. But the fact that wildlife black markets are organised is not the same as saying that this (always) involves organised crime of the kind that such a phrase usually conjures up in the public imagination. Much is being made of the involvement of militia and even terror groups, such as al-Shabaab, in elephant and rhino poaching in Africa and the tiger trade in South Asia. These are real problems, not only because of the impact on already endangered wildlife but also because of the high levels of violence involved. There is also evidence of smugglers with expertise in other commodities such as drugs or arms adding wildlife to their portfolio of illegal enterprise. The tactical attractions of securitising the illegal wildlife trade in this way are obvious. Nevertheless, for a whole range of illicit specimens, the illegal trade is managed by species-specific smuggling rings, many of which hide behind the cover of the expertise offered by legal trade.

Finally, while the focus on poachers and the need to stop them is important, we shouldn’t overlook the whole commodity chain. Global and transnational enforcement efforts – such as those coordinated by Interpol’s environmental crime programme or conducted by regional wildlife enforcement networks or encouraged by CITES or supported by ICCWC (the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime) – increasingly focus on the need to disrupt criminal networks, rather than just poachers or buyers. Those who do the actual killing or who take specimens alive from the wild are rarely the drivers of illicit chains of custody or the managers of black markets. Getting illicit commodities from source to buyer involves brokers and ‘middlemen’, financiers, transporters, shipping agents, manufacturers, producers, and traders who often deal in legal products alongside illegal ones. It often requires corruption and bribery of enforcement and border officials and it frequently involves delinquent professionals to launder profits.

In short, understanding more about how the routines of wildlife black markets work is less exciting than focusing on charismatic species and organised crime, but it’s actually crucial to strengthening transnational enforcement efforts and supporting more effective operational and policy outcomes.

About the author

Lorraine Elliott directs the Transnational Environmental Crime project funded by the Australian Research Council in partnership with the Department of the Environment.