Putting the poor in prison won’t stop wildlife crimes

When poor people have money, they buy bread, not a tiger head. But it is they who are punished, while racketeers get away.

Britain's Prince William, left, looks for ivory hidden in a suitcase on a scan during his visit to Microsoft HQ to learn how new AI scanning technology can increase detection of illegal wildlife products being trafficked through international airports, in Reading, England, Thursday Nov. 18, 2021. (Steve Parsons/Pool Photo via AP)
Britain's Prince William, left, looks for ivory hidden in a suitcase on a scan during his visit to Microsoft HQ to learn how new AI scanning technology can increase detection of illegal wildlife products being trafficked through international airports, in Reading, England, Thursday November 18, 2021. However, Kensington Palace, where he lives, itself reportedly has ivory displays which he hasn't spoken about [Steve Parsons/Pool via AP Photo]

Wildlife crimes are among the biggest challenges for biodiversity conservation, and there is interest worldwide in curbing it.

Recently, the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), the world’s leading body in this arena, highlighted in its biannual report for 2021-2022 that despite global gains, the threat of illegal wildlife trade remains significant. It recommended that countries significantly increase their focus on investigations, prosecutions and convictions.

Yet, while prosecution is indeed important, it is mainly targeted at poor and vulnerable communities in the biodiversity-rich Global South which are not often responsible for driving international illegal wildlife trade. Hundreds of people across Nepal are in prisons, convicted for wildlife crimes. Most of them are poor and illiterate.

The demand for exotic species that is central to the horror of wildlife crimes originates from wealthier communities and countries. But when arrests are made, it is primarily low-level actors from local communities – people who are easily replaceable in the trade supply chain – who face the force of the law.

When poor people have money, they buy bread, not a tiger head.

The global illegal wildlife trade is largely facilitated by organised criminal networks. For instance, pangolins are poached extensively in Asia and Africa to meet the demand arising from China. Research shows many other endangered species from the Global South end up reaching the Global North.

For example, a recent study found that there were at least 292 seizures of illegally traded tiger parts at United States ports between 2003-2012; the majority of them from the wild in Asian countries where tigers still roam free. The over 6,000 wildlife seizures reported by European Union member states in 2018 represent 16,740 specimens of species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and mostly originated from the developing world.

Clearly, local harvesters in poor countries are not the ones organising complex transnational operations to transport wildlife parts across international boundaries. The international kingpins and an extensive network of smugglers run this nexus. If the aim is to break this cycle of crime, it is these networks that need to be disrupted; it is the consumers they feed who need to be penalised.

International enforcement agencies like Interpol have been making efforts to clamp down on criminal networks for many years, but many governments have ignored in-country influential consumers who not only create demand for trade but can also be inadvertent promoters of illegal wildlife parts.

The biggest challenge to protect biodiversity today remains to bring the powerful under the ambit of the law. For example, the continued display of ivory and other wildlife parts at British royal residences despite Prince William’s strong commitment to curbing wildlife crime proves the difficulty of dealing with the powerful.

This can be construed as a double standard in attitude towards wildlife crime. This disparity can be seen everywhere around the world.

Even in a country like Nepal, which has set an exceptional record in controlling poaching to bring back rhinos and tigers from the brink of extinction and has one of the world’s strongest punishments for wildlife crime, the government is unable to enforce laws fairly.

Nepal’s stringent laws prohibit the illegal harvest and use of wildlife, imposing fines of up to 1 million rupees ($7,500) and prison sentences of up to 15 years. However, enforcement has consistently focused on Nepal’s poorest and most marginalised communities involved in illegally harvesting and trading wildlife.

Meanwhile, wildlife ownership by Nepal’s rich and powerful – a traditional practice for many among the country’s elite – is overlooked. After the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1973 banned the private possession of wildlife parts, the government requested citizens to surrender or secure permits to retain historical collection legally. It received no applications. This means all wildlife parts in private possession and display today in many elite residences across the country are illegal.

Yet, there’s no fear of the law – people with privilege brazenly flaunt wildlife hides even on national television and in magazines. A tiger pelt is on proud display in a former prime minister’s house. The Supreme Court of Nepal has recently acknowledged this injustice and pronounced a landmark verdict ordering the government to correct it immediately, based on my petition regarding unequal enforcement of wildlife laws in Nepal.

Most illegal wildlife trade is secretive and used in traditional medicines in visually unrecognisable forms. However, some trade is also to meet the demand for ostentatious displays, such as mounted animals, pelts, ivory and horns, outside of educational and research purposes.

Since the latter is visible and in recognisable form, even after reaching the consumer, it should be easy for enforcement authorities to investigate and seize such illegal wildlife parts. But owners of such items, usually rich and powerful, have largely been given a free pass.

Normalising such showcasing of wildlife parts adds to the appeal of owning them. It can further motivate people to secure wildlife parts as a status symbol by any means, which may include poaching and illegal trade.

If our ultimate goal is to protect biodiversity, governments must focus on breaking the criminal networks and mechanisms that enable and facilitate wildlife crime, and setting an example by punishing those who believe they are above the law.

Those, like Prince William and many in Nepal’s elite, who are genuinely concerned about nature conservation, should lead by example: They should surrender any wildlife parts that adorn their properties or wardrobes to governments and reject their use as status symbols.

Nature is where wildlife belongs. If governments and their law enforcement agencies are serious about keeping it there, their task is clear: Go after those who illegally keep wildlife on the mantlepiece or in the medicine cabinet and the criminals who get it to them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.