Following the money to disrupt wildlife crime: from words to action

22 November 2019

Since the early 2000s the world has seen an alarming surge in poaching and trafficking of protected wildlife species. These crimes impact not just biodiversity. They also undermine the rule of law and affect economies and the livelihoods of communities dependent on flora and fauna. Furthermore, wildlife crime generates huge amounts of revenues for criminal networks, often operating internationally. UN research estimates that the illegal wildlife trade is worth as much as 23 billion USD every year – twice the gross domestic product of source countries such as Tanzania or Kenya. These illicit proceeds are ‘laundered’ into the legal system through various methods, all aiming to conceal their illicit origin.


A mantra highly popular in wildlife conservation circles is that “we need to follow the money” in order to identify and disrupt the criminal networks engaged in wildlife crime.

Following the money requires that law enforcement agencies conduct financial investigations in parallel to or as part of wildlife crime investigations, in order to identify the profits derived from wildlife crimes, allowing seizure and confiscation of the criminal proceeds and related assets. Furthermore, that banks start paying attention to illicit financial flows associated with wildlife crimes and report any suspicious transactions.


While this sounds straightforward and is common enough in other crime fields such as narcotics and arms trafficking, it has proven challenging to put into practice for wildlife crime. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including inadequate legislation and inadequate law enforcement capacity, which more often than not can be traced back to a lack of political will. We briefly examine these factors below and discuss relevant developments.


Adequate legislation


A prerequisite for law enforcement agencies to be able to follow the money in wildlife crime cases is the existence of domestic legislation which recognises wildlife crime as a predicate offence to money laundering. This means that wildlife crime is considered as an  underlying criminal activity which generates laundered properties. In many jurisdictions this classification is still lacking. In a legal review published in 2018, Legal Atlas found that 60% of 110 jurisdictions reviewed included wildlife crimes as part of their anti-money laundering laws – i.e. 40% did not.


Thankfully the political will to ensure anti-money laundering laws can be leveraged in wildlife crime cases is growing. In 2017, the UN General Assembly adopted UN General Assembly Resolution A/71/L.88, which calls upon Member States to review and amend national legislation, as necessary and appropriate, so that offences connected to the illegal trade in wildlife are treated as predicate offences, as defined in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, for the purposes of domestic money laundering offences and are actionable under domestic proceeds of crime legislation, and that assets linked to illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products can be seized, confiscated and disposed.


In 2018, governments participating in the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade adopted a declaration and committed to “increase action to tackle the illicit financial flows associated with wildlife trafficking and related corruption, including the increase of use of financial investigation techniques and public/private collaboration to identify criminals and their networks”.


It is hoped this push at the intergovernmental level will help motivate governments to implement adequate legislation and to ensure law enforcement agencies responsible for tackling wildlife crime are empowered to use it to trace, locate, freeze and ultimately confiscate assets that are proceeds of wildlife crime. This entails building capacity and providing adequate resources to relevant law enforcement agencies.


Law enforcement capacity


As it is, in most jurisdictions law enforcement agencies involved in tackling wildlife poaching and trafficking rarely move beyond arresting poachers and couriers and seizing illicit wildlife shipments to investigating and compiling evidence against the criminals profiting the most from wildlife crimes. This is often due to a lack of capacity and resources and/or a lack of interest and political will. Furthermore, many seizures are made by Customs agencies who don’t have a mandate to conduct criminal investigations and/or don’t consider it their task to do so.  If there is no agreement between Customs and police or wildlife inspection agencies to cooperate in wildlife crime cases, valuable information that might unravel wildlife crime networks remains unused. In this dynamic, conducting financial investigations is a bridge too far in many countries.


According to a 2017 report by the Asia-Pacific Group on Money Laundering and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, only 26% of 45 (Asia Pacific) governments surveyed were using financial investigation techniques, seizing assets or pursuing money laundering charges for wildlife crime cases.


In 2018, based on three years of research, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) also observed that financial investigations in wildlife crime cases still remain exceptions rather than the norm. In the vast majority of IWT (Illegal Wildlife Trade)  cases, law enforcement and prosecutors focus on convictions for illegal possession of wildlife parts and products. RUSI concluded that until finance-based responses are deployed more systematically, the ‘financial’ appeal of IWT will remain as strong as ever.


It should be noted that some countries are highly successful at employing financial investigative tools to identify illicit financial flows and confiscate illicit assets as part of wildlife crime investigations.


For example in the US, Operation Crash provides a fantastic example of how wildlife criminals can be brought to justice and stripped of their criminal assets. Operation Crash is a large-scale, multi-agency initiative led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service which targeted rhino horn and ivory traffickers. Between its start in 2012 and October 2017 more than 38 people had  been convicted of trafficking rhino horns resulting in more than $2.1 million in fines,$5.6 million in restitution, the forfeiture of millions of dollars in cash, gold bars, rhino horn, luxury vehicles and jewellery and prison sentences totalling 438 months. Smuggled tusks and rhino horns with a street value in excess of US$75 million were seized. Charges included not only wildlife trafficking but also conspiracy, smuggling, money laundering, international money laundering, mail fraud, tax evasion, bribery, and falsification of documents.


Financial Action Taskforce prioritises illegal wildlife trade


A promising development is the increased engagement of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on the issue of illegal wildlife trade. FATF is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system. Under its current chair President Xiangmin Liu (China), FATF has made it a priority to help countries go after the money involved in the illegal wildlife trade, and to identify and disrupt large criminal networks profiting from this crime.


During 2020, the FATF will work with the public and private sector, including the People’s Bank of China, the United for Wildlife Financial Taskforce and The Royal Foundation, to develop a report on good practices that will assist in financial investigations of the illegal wildlife trade. The report will highlight how public-private partnerships and international cooperation can help to identify and disrupt the illicit proceeds of this devastating criminal activity.


Private sector response


While financial flows at the source (poacher’s) side are mostly cash-based, further up the supply chain wildlife crime syndicates operating internationally rely on the international banking system to move funds. In recent years, banks have begun to realise the magnitude of illicit financial flows generated by wildlife crime and their role in facilitating criminals moving dirty money through the banking system. The financial sector has a crucial role to play in identifying suspicious activity, and there are positive signs it is willing to step up to make it harder for wildlife criminals to move and launder illicit proceeds.


In 2018, the United for Wildlife Financial Taskforce was established, bringing together more than 30 international banks with the aim of identifying specific actions the financial sector can take on this issue. The Taskforce adopted a declaration and committed to share resources and intelligence in order to disrupt the illegal income generated by poached animal products.


It is encouraging that financial tools are starting to become available to law enforcement in the fight against wildlife crime and that other key actors such as the financial sector are becoming engaged. There is however still a long road ahead for words to translate into action. It all comes down to genuine political will to undertake what is needed to become successful in the fight against wildlife crime.

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