Published in September 2019
This module is a resource for lecturers
The difficulty with data
Information and statistics about the levels and patterns of wildlife, forest, and fisheries crime are essential to the proper understanding of this phenomenon and to the development of effective countermeasures. Data collection about the scale and patterns of wildlife and forest crime is important for evaluating the impact and efficiency of policy, legislation, and enforcement programs, and for providing feedback to policy makers and legislators. However, in most places, data and knowledge about the levels and characteristics of wildlife trafficking are, at best, fragmented.
For a wide variety of reasons, it is not easy to quantify the world's wildlife trade. Local use of wild plants and animals may account for the majority of global wildlife trade in terms of trade volume and perhaps even value, but much of this trade is carried out through informal trade networks and not recorded in available statistics. Even the more structured aspects of domestic trade in wildlife commodities, between regions within a country and to supply urban markets, is seldom closely monitored and even where it is, statistical records of trade volumes and values are dispersed and difficult to compile (Broad et al, 2012).
It is not possible to state with certainty what the scale of the global trafficking in wildlife, animal parts, and plants is, or to guess what it might be. This is because 'scale' can be determined by many different and ever-changing variables, because, as mentioned, definitions and concepts of wildlife trafficking differ widely, and not least because of the clandestine nature of this market.
Despite the widespread tendency to attempt to estimate the size of wildlife trafficking - often described, without much evidentiary basis, as second only to drugs or, in some cases, to drugs and arms - there are few reliable statistics. Efforts to estimate the scale of wildlife trafficking are fraught with enormous problems. There are several layers of uncertainty, which, in many respects, are irreducible: the number of animals or plants in the wild; the number that are illegally but successfully trafficked to customers; the percentage of those trafficked that are intercepted; the prices that are paid; and many more. These uncertainties are compounded by inadequate reporting, the paucity of controlled deliveries and other undercover operations that are critical to the process of knowledge discovery in illegal markets, and the over-reliance on anecdotal or specific cases without adequate consideration of their wider applicability, broader relevance or adequacy as a 'typical' sample. The fact that the scale of wildlife trafficking cannot be precisely established does not mean, however that the market is insignificant: it is a large and vibrant market with considerable demand and sufficient profit to attract both organized and other crime (United Nations ECOSOC, 2003).
Perhaps the most reliable statistics are those of annual seizures recorded by national authorities. A seizure is made when contraband is detected by law enforcement authorities. Seizures are reliant on two factors: (1) The presence of contraband in the jurisdiction of the seizing authority; and (2) the proactive effort to detect and interdict that contraband. Thus, the quantity of seizures indicates both the presence of a problem and the initiative of the relevant authorities in addressing it. High levels of seizures are not necessarily an indicator of gaps and weaknesses of domestic systems; they are often precisely the opposite. Consequently, countries that dedicate the most effort to fighting trafficking may have higher seizure totals than similarly situated counterparts. For this reason, countries with the highest seizures are often transit countries, neither the source nor the destination of the illicit flow (UNODC, 2016).
To avoid detection, traffickers favour those countries with limited interdiction capacity. Even countries with a good law enforcement capacity do not inspect their exports the way that they inspect their imports, so contraband sourced in countries with weak capacities is highly unlikely to be seized at the point of origin. Furthermore, corruption is essential to many contraband flows, and seizures are not made where the relevant officials are complicit (UNODC, 2016).
Each seizure incident can provide multiple pieces of information on the nature of an illicit market. Whether transported by sea freight, air freight, personal courier, or post, it is sometimes possible to determine where the contraband originated, transited, and was destined. In addition, a seizure allows a great deal of information to be obtained about the identity and methods of the traffickers, when the confiscating authorities take the initiative to record these details. Aside from routes, the preferred methods of conveyance and concealment can be documented. In some cases, the age, gender, and nationalities of those associated with the shipment can be recorded, as well as the laws used to charge them (UNODC, 2016).
Several databases have been established to record information relating to seizures and to facilitate the study of wildlife trafficking patterns. For example, to better understand wildlife crime, UNODC has compiled a global database of seizure incidents known as World WISE, the World Wildlife Seizure database. The World Customs Organization (WCO) gathers some wildlife seizure data through its CEN database (WCO-CEN). WCO-CEN data are also a large component of the seizure database of the European Commission Enforcement Working Group, known as EU-TWIX (European Union Trade in Wildlife Information Exchange) (UNODC, 2016). In the United States, the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) records details of seizures in the Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS) (see further, Petrossian et al, 2016). Countries that are party to CITES are required to submit annual reports of international trade, including seizures of listed species, which are made available on the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) CITES trade database (d'Cruze & Macdonald, 2016).
The quality of seizure data, however, varies greatly in terms of completeness and coverage. Some seizure reports leave out key data, such as the source and destination of the shipment. The way products are classed and measured differs between jurisdictions, and conversion ratios are needed to amalgamate comparable products. There is a clear need for international standardization of these records, and capacity building for those who collect them. Thus, while seizures are an imperfect indicator, they have the potential to provide important insights when aggregated in sufficient volumes. They cannot be taken at face value or interpreted mechanically, but they represent concrete evidence of criminal activity that is otherwise obscured from view. Combined with research on the underlining criminal markets, they help inform, and challenge, the understanding of wildlife trafficking (UNODC, 2016).
One of the difficulties in collecting statistics is the fact that wildlife and forest crime stems from the fact that complainants will only contact the authorities to report a crime in rare and exceptional circumstances, usually when they experience personal loss or harm. Even where they exist, crime statistics alone do not necessarily provide a good indication of the prevalence of crime and victimization in a given country, because they are greatly influenced by the willingness of victims to report the crime to the police. The reporting rate, as it is usually referred to, may be affected by a number of factors, including access to law enforcement agencies, confidence (or lack thereof) in the police, et cetera. Victims and witnesses of crime are unlikely to report it to the authorities when they do not have much trust in them or cannot reasonably expect much help from them (UNODC, 2006). Crime statistics therefore provide a flawed estimate of the level of wildlife and forest crime actually committed.
The difference between how much crime actually occurs and how much crime is reported to or discovered by the authorities is referred to as the 'dark figure'. Further compounding the problem of reporting and documenting wildlife crime is that the victims - in this case, wildlife - cannot report crime to the police. This is otherwise known as the "silent victim" problem, which only adds to the difficulty of measuring these types of crimes.
Next: Supply and demand