We need global commitment and coordinated actions to save the iconic endangered species from extinction, in ways that are also fair across countries.
This week, environment ministers and conservationists from dozens of countries, including Nepal, will be meeting in London to discuss illegal wildlife trade (IWT) and strategies to protect the world’s endangered species from the threat of extinction.
Countries will make pledges to reduce wildlife trade, with a strong focus on tropical and developing countries, including Nepal, and on the need for stronger enforcement and greater sanctions in order to protect imperiled biodiversity.
These are legitimate aims, and yet I wonder to what extent industrialized countries will take pause to reflect on their own contemporary and historic roles in IWT, or on the enforcement and sanctions against people perpetrating IWT in their own countries. There is a need for a candid discussion about the variation among, and fairness of the different ways in which countries are being pushed to tackle IWT.
Last December, I was in the University of Oxford working on a data base of wildlife seizures in Nepal and sharing my research based on interviews with people arrested for IWT in Nepal. My respondents included people imprisoned up to 15 years for participating in illegal poaching and trade of species such as elephant, tiger, rhinos and pangolin. At the same time, a man was arrested in London with a huge amount of ivory and leopard derivatives. I was surprised that he had served only 18 months of sentence.
Interestingly, those ivory and wildlife parts were not from the UK or for the UK market, but in transit. A recent research by London-based Environmental Investigation Agency revealed that the UK is the largest ivory supplier after the US to China and Hong Kong. Countries in West Europe and the Far East form the third largest chunk of IWT products buyers. So, while many iconic species affected by IWT are from developing countries in Asia and Africa, a number of other countries are deeply implicated as trader and consumers.
Crime and punishment
The ways in which IWT is enforced and punished, however, is very different. Fines and prison sentences for IWT are actually very low in many countries. However, there is a growing push to increase patrols, prison sentences and fines for IWT in many countries. For example, Nepal has one of the stiff sanctions for wildlife crime and now new CITES Act (2016) has increased punishment provisions. Already, there are some countries and national parks where park rangers are empowered to shoot people in the name of protecting the wildlife. For example, Kaziranga National Park authorities in India shot 65 suspected poachers between 2010 and 2016.
In contrast, sanctions are significantly lower for elite traders and consumers, including in developed countries like the UK (as in above case) who actually drive the poaching and IWT throughout the world. In 2015, realizing the gravity of IWT as a global crime, Obama administration had initiated Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking to combat the IWT worldwide.
It is estimated that of the 70 percent of the world’s illegal wildlife trade, the US is emerging as the biggest consumer and the buyer for wildlife derived trafficking.
Countries in the global north are investing a huge amount of money and resources to combat the IWT. Recently, the British government announced £44.5 million boosts for anti-wildlife trafficking projects. The UK has also sent members of the British army to Gabon in the west of Africa and Malawi in east Africa to help park rangers hunt down poachers.
Despite these shared efforts to stop IWT, they still seem to be resulting in a two-tier system of conservation enforcement: People in parts of Africa and Asia, often residents of poor rural areas, who are involved in the harvest of wildlife, face severe punishments if they are detected. However, the intermediaries and consumers, often in countries such as the US, China and Europe, face very different implications.
Sanctions are strict in available sources countries but significantly lower in transit and high demand nations. It looks like developed countries such as the US, the UK and EU are more focused on certain fines but that only may not create enough deterrent effect to curb IWT. The reasons are simple: Fines are very low, income is high and incentives for IWT huge.
It is understandable that different countries approach IWT and related sanctions in different ways. However, every human being—British or Bengali, Nepali or Norwegian—is equal, as are the implications of their imprisonment for IWT.
There is a need for a candid discussion about conservation enforcement, and the ways these vary in source, transit and consumer countries. This is all the more important given the economic differences and inequalities among actors.
The horrible business of wildlife trade, multibillion-dollar business, threatens to eradicate life from the earth. A recent World Wildlife Fund study revealed that 52 percent of wildlife population around the world disappeared since 1970s with overhunting being a major driver of decline. For some species, the study found, the IWT is now the primary threat, thanks to soaring demand for certain wildlife and animal-derived products.
Moving forward, it makes sense for sanctions to ensure they deter future perpetrators. Judicial systems around the world should ensure that wildlife crimes, from harvest, trafficking and consumption, are met with strict sentences. Importantly, sentences should be more proportionate, but fair across jurisdictions. This includes sanctioning the environmental criminals who are earning billions in profits from IWT, many of whom are in transit and consumer countries.
Developed countries are making vital investments into conservation research, field-based conservation and strengthened policies to protect iconic species and habitat, but they must also consider matters of equity, and look back to themselves and their own existing legislations and sentences that are enough to deter people to participate in IWT. However, this is not the time for the pot to call the kettle black. What we need is genuine global commitment and coordinated actions to save the iconic endangered species from extinction, in ways that are also fair across countries. Wildlife trade knows no bounds: a tiger killed in Nepal may be traded to India or China, or intermediary countries like the UK or the US, en route to, Dubai.
This week’s London Conference (October 11-12) presents an opportunity for new discussions about solutions to IWT. This should include issues of stringent, but fair and equivalent penalties for traders, consumers and poachers involved in IWT should be highlighted, irrespective of nation.
The author is Co-Founder of Greenhood Nepal and former Biodiversity Fellow at the University of Oxford.