Pandemic highlights urgency of fight against wildlife trafficking

Simon Fuller, IBA Managing EditorFriday 6 November 2020

In the spring, reports emerged alleging a link between the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and wildlife, specifically that the virus began in a ‘wet’ market in Wuhan, China. The conditions in such markets – which often feature wild animals – make it easy for diseases to transition from wildlife to humans.

Countries including China have introduced stricter measures to manage these markets. But such reports highlight the importance of combatting wildlife trafficking. According to John Scanlon, Chair of End Wildlife Crime (EWC), illegal wildlife trade in species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (‘CITES’) is a $20bn industry worldwide. Taking into account all species, the figure is about $200bn.

The pandemic has caused a significant loss of tourism and this has harmed wildlife management capacity. Meanwhile, the economic conditions created could turn more people towards wildlife trafficking for income.

Where we focus on wildlife law, we’re ignoring the reality of how the criminal court systems in so many source and transit countries actually operate – that's the key in that there’s no deterrent

Shamini Jayanathan
Director, Arcturus Consultancy

‘The main problem resulting from the pandemic is that there will be increasing poverty,’ says Leopoldo Pagotto, Co-Chair of the IBA Anti-Corruption Committee and a partner at FreitasLeite. Pagotto notes that in Brazil, ‘the government has been paying substantial financial aid to poor, unemployed people. But such aid will cease from 20 January 2021. And then the situation will be uncertain.’

In this context, in mid-October EWC released details of its proposed Fourth Protocol under the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). Parties to this Protocol would need to adopt legislation making the illegal trafficking of any whole or part of a wild animal or plant, living or dead, a criminal offence. Other commitments would include taking measures to discourage demand for wildlife.

‘CITES has been heavily relied upon but it was not designed to deal with wildlife crime, it is a trade-related convention, not a crime-related convention,’ says Scanlon. It’s essential now, he believes, to look at all species in illegal trade and to embed combatting wildlife crime into the international criminal law framework.

EWC has further proposed amendments to CITES itself to ‘build […] public and animal health criteria into its decision-making processes’, Scanlon says, to ready the Convention for a post-Covid world.

Shamini Jayanathan is a criminal barrister at Foundry Chambers in London and Director of Arcturus Consultancy in Kenya; her work includes advising governments and the UN on designing and implementing criminal justice solutions to illegal wildlife trafficking. She believes the proposed Fourth Protocol is an interesting idea, but questions whether it might be misleading to think that once it’s signed, things would change.

‘Where we focus on wildlife law, we’re ignoring the reality of how the criminal court systems in so many source and transit countries actually operate,’ she says. ‘And I think that’s the key in that there’s no deterrent.’

In Jayanathan’s experience, in many source countries, traffickers can be confident that when caught, they enter a court system where prosecutors may not have the information or access to law to charge the correct offence, where traffickers can be confident of getting bail, where trial may take years and where ultimately their sentence may not meet the seriousness of the crime.

‘What is required is a holistic approach to criminal justice systems,’ she says. ‘The Fourth Protocol doesn’t address this and as it is not “self-executing”, even monist States won't see it as having automatic application.’

Alison Howell is Head of Allegation Management and Assurance at Ericsson and a trainer for Lawyers without Borders, with experience of training Kenyan and Tanzanian prosecutors and rangers on the prevention, detection and sanctioning of wildlife trafficking. To best ensure convictions in wildlife trafficking cases, she has trained rangers on being cross-examined for example, and on crime scene management and maintaining the chain of custody for evidence.

‘You can have the best prosecutor in the country, but if the evidence is weak or it has been contaminated, then he/she will really be no match for a poaching kingpin, because his/her counsel will get the evidence thrown out,’ she explains.

In June, Lord William Hague, the Chair of the United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce, called for an international agreement on wildlife trafficking. He suggested creating a new UN body to monitor any breaches of states’ commitments.

Howell acknowledges that international pressure has been effective or at least helped to elevate wildlife trafficking as a priority. She highlights pressure from within countries as being especially effective, however. In Kenya for example, Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady, became the figurehead for WildlifeDirect’s anti-poaching campaign ‘Hands off our Elephants’ in 2013. ‘It’s more effective if it’s coming from within a country or someone that people recognise within the country providing this message,’ says Howell.

Howell emphasises involving local communities – who may have felt that they weren’t benefitting from wildlife tourism. ‘If you have the community on board and they feel somehow that they’re benefiting from the eco-tourism that’s going on, then they may be more likely to, for example, flag to local rangers if there’s a poacher in the area,’ she says.

Regarding Lord Hague’s suggestions, Jayanathan points to the numerous agreements and resolutions on wildlife crime – the Kasane statement in 2015, the Hanoi conference in 2016 and the London conference in 2018, and several resolutions by the UN General Assembly for instance. ‘These commitments have already been declared by states, many, many times. Do we need a UN body to monitor it? I would say no,’ she says.

Instead, Jayanathan notes how efforts to address crime in areas such as wildlife crime, money laundering and human trafficking are delivered in silos. Given that the pandemic isn’t only about wildlife, she suggests that an initiative such as the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism strategy (CONTEST) could be adapted to the area of pandemic prevention.

She proposes drawing on CONTEST’s four pillars – Prevent, Pursue, Protect, and Prepare – with ‘Pursue’, for example, covering wildlife crime but also matters such as food and safety regulations, counterfeit medicines and operation of markets where food is sold. ‘Prevent’ would cover education and public health, amongst other things.

Under ‘Prepare’, meanwhile, the strategy would examine ‘what’s another pandemic [going to look like], can we mobilise military resources, can we stock or access PPE in time, how quickly can we shut down our airspace?’ she explains. ‘For Protect the conservation community could play a really key role in terms of securing already protected areas, possibly increasing their reach and the buffer zones around them.’

Image: Afrianto Silalahi /