The global illegal trade in wildlife is worth $19bn (£12bn) a year and is threatening the stability of some governments according to new research.
Carried out for conservation group WWF, a report highlights a “new wave” of organised wildlife crime by armed groups operating across borders. It says funds from trafficking are being used to finance civil conflicts.
The study comes as Malaysian officials captured about 20 tonnes of ivory in one of the biggest seizures ever made.
According to Jim Leape, WWF International director general, the report underlines the fact that wildlife crime has escalated drastically over the past decade and now posed a greater threat than ever.
“This is about much more than wildlife,” he told a news conference. “This crisis is threatening the very stability of governments. It has become a profound threat to national security.”
Rebel militia groups in Africa are cashing in on demand for elephants, tigers and rhinos to fund civil conflicts, said John Scanlon, secretary general of Cites, the organisation that governs the trade in endangered species.
“We saw earlier this year with rebel groups coming from Chad and Sudan going into northern Cameroon slaughtering 450 elephants, taking the ivory for the purpose of selling it in order to buy arms for local conflicts” he said.
He added that there had been similar issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This view was echoed by Christian Glass, spokesman for the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“The new wave of organised wildlife trade crime with heavily armed groups of poachers acting cross-borders is jeopardising conservation successes we’ve had in the past,” he said.
The report suggests that the illicit sale of animals and plants is the world’s fourth largest illegal trade after narcotics, counterfeiting of products and currency and the trafficking of people.
It says that two factors were spurring the growth of the trade. The first was the absence of credible law enforcement and other deterrents that reduced the risk to organised criminal groups. The second was increased accessibility of illegal products via the internet.
Just before the report was released, customs officials in Malaysia announced that they had made a huge seizure of ivory.
According to reports by TRAFFIC, the shipment was en route to China from Togo and comprised some 1,500 pieces of tusks.
They were discovered in wooden crates that were deliberately designed to look like stacks of sawn timber.
Early estimates suggested the shipment was more than 20 tonnes in total. If this is confirmed it would be one of the biggest seizures in history.
According to Will Travers, chief executive of Born Free Foundation, up to 30,000 elephants a year were being killed to fuel demand driven largely by China. “No part of Africa is now safe,” he said. “Across the continent, for the first time, the number of carcasses recorded as a result of poaching exceeds the number reportedly dying from natural causes.” “The bloody ivory trade has reached new heights of destruction and depravity in 2012.”
Capturing that many tusks at one time is a rare piece of good news for those involved in the fight against trafficking.
Greater international co-operation is needed according to the WWF report as is the better use of intelligence and investigative techniques.
But there also has to be a tougher response from the authorities in the countries most affected, said John Scanlon.
“We need to deploy the police and in a number of cases we need to deploy the military” he said, adding that the army was now being used to fight the illegal trade in species in five African countries.
The report was based on consultations and interviews with representatives from more than 110 governments and international organisations.
The report can be found here: http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/wwffightingillicitwildlifetrafficking_lr.pdf