During my visit to Southeast Asia in December last year, I witnessed with my own eyes the mesmerising beauty of an iconic species like the Sumatran tiger. I did so within a modern facility where tigers are rehabilitated and re-integrated into an ever decreasing natural habitat. I also had the opportunity to learn more about the excruciating story of the orangutans. Like the tiger, life for this noble and gentle species takes place in rehabilitation centres or in protected areas, because the forests have been progressively replaced by palm oil plantations and other human settlements.
A shrinking habitat, however, is not the only challenge. The future of many species today is jeopardised by the activity of unscrupulous criminal networks that make billions of dollars from the illegal trade in endangered species. Over the last decade, the illegal trade in wildlife has grown significantly both in terms of sophistication and in terms of revenues. No continent is immune. Asia plays a key role as a resource for wildlife and as a destination.
There is now a serious risk of extinction for iconic species such as tigers, rhinos, elephants and sharks. This grave risk is driven by the greed of wealthy markets in America, Asia and Europe. The perpetrators of this deadly wound on our diverse planet need to be identified, stopped and adequately punished. Two years ago, a similar plea for the conservation of endangered species was made by President Putin, who called for aggressive action during the St Petersburg’s Tiger Summit.
From a conservation perspective, many species are already gone. Others are on the brink of extinction. This is bad news for many – but not for the traffickers. Formidable prices are paid today for tiger parts, rhino horns, shark fins, wild orchids, rosewood furniture, carved ivory and other derivatives of species that may be gone forever. Based on estimates, some of these animals and natural resources will have vanished in just a few years.
To succeed in committing wildlife crime, traffickers recruit heavily armed poachers, organise logistically-complex shipments, circumvent trade regulations and build complicity with traffickers from other crime areas or even insurgent groups. This poses a monumental challenge for the law enforcement community which is often ill-equipped and poorly coordinated to dismantle transnational networks of wildlife traffickers.
It is for this reason that the upcoming 16th Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has a significant role to play not only for the protection of the biodiversity of the planet, but also for the fight against a pernicious form of transnational organised crime.
We cannot no longer afford to grant such level of impunity to criminals of this calibre. If we are to conserve our natural resources and keep them safe, radical changes have to happen. And, they must happen immediately.
I hope that, at the end of the CITES COP16, governments will commit to invest resources for detecting, investigating and prosecuting the illegal trade of wildlife. Governments also need to take measures to simplify the existing regulatory systems and to promote harmonised legal frameworks for the criminal justice system to play a vastly more effective role. The challenges for the establishment of a global regulatory system for trade are immense in every sector, with national interests often moving in diverging directions.
I sincerely hope that CITES COP16 will conclude with strong, bold and clear deliberations that will support the conservation of highly endangered species. But at the same time I hope that such deliberations will be taken with a view to allow a straightforward interpretation also by judges, prosecutors, police officers, customs officers, rangers and other law enforcement officers that will be called upon to implement these decisions.
The earth’s biosphere must be recognised as an essential part of human security. And these crimes cannot be fought exclusively within the realm of conservation and environmental management.
When necessary, governments must review criminal codes, ensure harsher penalties, and improve cooperation among prosecutors, police and customs officers. But most importantly, governments must provide resources to adopt sophisticated investigative techniques based on intelligence, anti-corruption and anti-money laundering measures, that are commonly used in other crime areas such as drug-trafficking and counter-terrorism.
UNODC can also play a larger role. In 2011, five international organisations – the CITES Secretariat, INTERPOL, the World Bank, the World Customs Organisation and UNODC – gave birth to an unprecedented alliance to combine political will and technical assistance in the fight against wildlife crime. It is called the International Consortium for Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). I do hope that as a result of COP16, governments will support and promote a larger involvement of ICCWC to increase the effectiveness of the fight against these despicable crimes.
The conservation of the rich biodiversity of the planet is under severe attack. It is the responsibility of all of us – the generation of the world’s current leaders – to scale-up the countermeasures against the unscrupulous and well-organised criminal networks that endanger the security of future generations.
Yury Fedotov is the Executive Director for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.