The Dark Links with Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

On Wednesday 27 April 2016, in front of a packed audience of wildlife conservationists and advocates, the Frontline Club played host to an impassioned discussion on the dark links between organised crime, terrorist groups and illegal wildlife trafficking – the latest in a series of events in partnership with the Scientific Exploration Society (SES).

Chaired by Andrew Mitchell, founder of the Global Canopy Program and chairman of the SES, the discussion sought to debate the causes and possible solutions to one of the greatest concerns of our time. Joined by an esteemed panel of explorers, scientists and experts, Mitchell began proceedings by opening the floor to the panel to share their experiences.

Dr Susan Canney, who has been involved in the WILD Foundation’s Mali Elephant Project since 2003, began by explaining the importance of attitudinal shifts among communities towards endangered species. Discussing one successful instance, she said: “The elders made a sanction which would be transmitted far and wide, including to the leaders of armed groups, that anybody who kills elephants is a thief – something very shameful to be labelled in those cultures.”

For three years this contained the poaching problem, with only about 20 elephants killed the intervening period. But then early last year, something suddenly changed. Dr Canney said: “People in the elephant range were being phoned up by trafficking networks. Somebody who was a very good shot began behaving very strangely… eventually we lost 63 elephants in just six months.”

While the introduction of the Malian army has stemmed the tide, Dr Canney conceded that it was impossible to know when there would be a resurgence in the criminal activities.

Richard Madden of The Daily Telegraph, who recently returned from two years spent living on safari reserves in countries across Africa, concurred with Dr Canney’s assessment. He said: “Wildlife has to have value for the people, and if they do not feel that they have a stake in all these extraordinary animals who are on the brink of being exterminated – if they feel that they’re worth more to them dead than alive – then we’re absolutely lost.”

Madden then went on to discuss the links between illegal trade and terrorist activities, suggesting that in Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Kenya illegal trade is not funding terrorism. However, he said: “In central and western Africa it is a very different issue… it’s the unstable countries like Angola and Mozambique which are funding huge amounts of terrorist activities – and they are stockpiling and burying ivory.”

Ian Redmond, the renowned explorer and conservationist, went on to liken the demand from countries such as China to a vacuum sucking up ivory and horn throughout the whole continent. He said: “Only the animals that are protected, sometimes 24/7, can be held down. The rest are sucked up into the vacuum and they’re into the international trade for someone’s mantlepiece, or into somebody else’s medicine.”

“Only the animals that are protected, sometimes 24/7, can be held down”

Julian Newman, the campaigns director for London-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), argued that the legislation needed to reduce these crimes already exists. He said: “Based on our recent work on trade in tiger bones, rhino horns and elephant ivory, what we’re talking about is serious transnational organised crime – these are criminals breaking the law.”

Highlighting that wildlife crime is now the fourth largest form of organised crime in the world, according to the UN, Newman urged: “The response that governments put in place is not appropriate to tackle organised crime. These groups span countries and continents, are very well organised and make lots of money – meaning they can bribe and corrupt.

“There’s too much focus on either the poaching or the market,” he continued. “Time is short. We have to look at these criminal syndicates who are making money, disrupt them in the middle and put them in jail. We have the tools to do that but we’re not using them against wildlife criminals. We have to look at anti-corruption, anti money-laundering laws and we have to get serious about this.”

In conclusion, Newman added: “This fight will not be won in the bush, it will be won in the court.”