STEALING goods and knowingly distributing and receiving stolen goods are criminal offences throughout the globe, with usually heavy prison sentences and/or hefty fines imposed. Few readers will know that behind drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and human trafficking, the illegal trade in environmental products is the fourth largest organised criminal enterprise in the world amounting to RM962 billion each year.
By comparison the illegal trade in small arms is merely worth RM11 billion. Both Interpol and the United Nations are imploring for greater worldwide collaboration and cooperation to rid us of this big business.
Essentially it consists of six elements. Estimates suggest that the illegal trade in wildlife is worth RM28 billion to RM88 billion; logging RM187 billion to RM566 billion; fisheries RM38 billion to RM83 billion; illegal gold and other precious metal extraction and sales RM44 billion to RM176 billion; and the trafficking and illegal dumping of toxic waste RM38 billion to RM44 billion.
Globally, governments are losing RM33 billion to RM99 billion annually through revenues from environmental activities vanishing into the black market. It has been stated that these crime rates are increasing at the staggering rate of at least 5 to 7 per cent each year.
The above figures have been obtained from a joint Interpol-UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report. Sadly, the global funding to combat such sophisticated international criminal gang activities only stands between RM77 million to RM110 million.
In the late 11th century after the Norman Conquest of Britain, King William the Conqueror declared most major forests in southern England as royal reserves. This was to prevent poachers from entering such estates to kill deer. This was essentially for self-interest for the royals saw deer hunting as their preserve with pain of death for captured poachers.
There are three motivations for poaching today: the need for food to survive, cultural, and economic. In many parts of our globe, poaching occurs for economic and cultural reasons as the illegal wildlife trade is driven by high profit margins. The latter, sadly, do not fill the actual poachers’ pockets but allow the pockets of the middlemen smugglers and sellers to bulge.
Many animals are killed and certain of their bodily parts dismembered for economic reasons directly driven by cultural demands. Two examples of the latter are found in Asia. India’s rapid declining tiger population (less than 3,000 in the wild) has been fuelled by the demand for pseudo-medicines in China, where it is thought that consumption of tiger penises increases fertility. A similar and scientifically disproven belief exists in Vietnam, where ground up rhino horn is thought to cure cancer. Such deeply embedded cultural beliefs have escalated prices for such on the black market.
Throughout many Southern and Southeast Asian open markets these products, along with countless other animal parts, are on display for all and sundry to purchase. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) rightly condemns laws that have been passed by nations to make environmental crime totally illegal, for some of these laws are ‘toothless’ as corruption occurs before a prosecution can take place and, if such does occur, the penalties in either a prison sentence or a fine or both are far too light a sentence for the perpetrators. Often there are too few whistle-blowers in our world to report these injustices to the police and game rangers.
Endangered species and ecosystems
Tigers, as top of the food chain or apex predators, keep local animal populations under control. Their prey are usually herbivores which, if allowed to increase, inevitably will cause a decline in the health of floral habitats and thus affect the rest of the food chain to include bird and insect populations.
Yet other ecosystems are verging on collapse owing to poaching or the illegal trade of wildlife. This is no better illustrated than in the overfishing of certain fish species such as cod, marlin, shark, and tuna. All four species fetch very high prices. Unsustainable fishing methods such as trawling, whereby weighted nets are dragged in huge open bag fashion along the seabed, catch all and sundry enmeshed species. Inevitably the by-catch is tossed overboard from the trawler or sold illegally for additional and unmonitored profit.
Sharks are caught by drift nets and are mainly harvested for their fins and other parts for ‘shark steaks’. Once these have been removed most of the carcasses are jettisoned back into the sea. Sharks particularly prey on rays and skates in the North Atlantic. Through ruthless shark fishing there has been a massive decline in shellfish, which are so vital to the livelihoods of the traditional shell-fishers on the Atlantic coast of the USA.
Clearly supply chains need to be targeted, wildlife and marine reserves set up and patrolled, and consumer demands, which are the most important drivers in the illegal trade in wildlife, curbed. Malaysia has taken the lead in not only stamping down severely on illegal logging but also through stricter customs controls. Criminals will always look for loopholes as witnessed at Heathrow Airport, London, recently where customs officers found a batch of baby saltwater crocodiles, sent from a Malaysian supplier to a Cambridge wildlife park, overcrowded in a small container and nearly suffocating.
Deterrence, transparency and legal clarity, behavioural change and the development of alternative livelihoods for potential poachers will upset the demand and supply chains. In some national parks in East and Central Africa, former poachers are now turned gamekeepers as paid armed rangers on patrol. In most countries tougher anti-poaching legislation needs to be passed and enforced.
Wildlife crime in the UK
Since 2013, there has been a considerable rise in wildlife crime and, in particular, the unlawful killing of raptors such as hen harriers, buzzards, owls, and peregrine falcons. Five hundred cases were reported to the police with many more unreported. These birds of prey have been targeted in Northern English grouse moor areas where they have been shot, trapped in air nets or poisoned in their nests. Grouse shooting on huge country estates is a lucrative business but sadly the gamekeepers have suffered prosecution, as detailed in court records, and not the landowners. It is the latter who should face judgement and not their employees.
In other parts of the UK, peregrine falcons’ eggs are stolen from their nests, along with their chicks, for export to the sheikdoms of the Middle East where these birds are highly prized as hunters. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK is calling for tighter law enforcement and criminal prosecution for such dastardly acts. Justice must be seen to be done across the globe if threatened species of fauna and flora are to be revived.
The poor poachers’ pockets are never filled for the risks they take, unlike the vast sums of money made by the wheelers and dealers, who take the stolen ‘goods’ up the line and around the world. This chain must be broken and the loopholes in legislation tightly closed if the economies of developing countries are not deprived of billions of dollars in lost revenues and development opportunities.