The trafficking of wildlife is increasingly recognized as both a specialised area of organized crime and a significant threat to many plant and animal species. Criminal groups use the same routes, facilitators, and techniques to traffic wildlife as they do for other illicit commodities, and they exploit gaps in national law enforcement and criminal justice systems. The enormous profits generated by the trafficking of wild fauna and flora are used to finance other criminal activities, and in some cases the proceeds finance conflict and contribute to instability. These crimes are often interlinked with corruption and economic crimes, and can threaten the rule of law, governance and national security. Wildlife crime robs local communities of their livelihoods and negatively impacts social and economic development. This criminal activity also has significant environmental impacts, contributing to the global extinction crisis and loss of biodiversity. Poaching of keystone species, for example, can have incalculable ecological repercussions. Wildlife crime amplifies climate change by destroying important carbon sinks, altering ecosystems, and disturbing the balance of the oceans. In 2020, the well-recognized environmental and security risks posed by wildlife crime were joined by an increased collective awareness of the potentially devastating impacts of the wildlife trade on human health, and in turn on the global economy and security. The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call on the need to rethink global approaches to protecting natural resources, and on the need to address wildlife crime.
In contrast to markets on which there is a complete prohibition, wildlife trafficking may involve goods that can be legal or illegal, depending on when, where, and how they were acquired. Since an official document can transform millions of dollars of suspected contraband into millions of dollars of legitimate merchandise, a proportion of the “trafficking” of these goods may be laundered and proceed through the front door, with documents provided through fraud, forgery, or corruption. Aside from evading interdiction, illegally sourced goods laundered using fraudulent documents can be introduced into legitimate commercial channels, availing themselves of legal demand. In this way, illegally sourced timber, fish, and other wildlife products find their way into mainstream retail outlets, and consumers who would never knowingly purchase contraband may nonetheless do so. Transnational trade has grown at a rate greater than the ability of the international community to regulate it, allowing a wide range of illicit merchandise to be laundered through a series of holding companies and offshore accounts. Wildlife products are no different, and the need for strict regulation and supply chain security is key to protecting threatened species.
- UNODC World Wildlife Crime Report 2020
Against this background, the Environment Team, through the Global Programme on Crimes that Affect the Environment, works with Member States to strengthen criminal justice and preventive responses to address the trafficking of wild fauna and flora. UNODC addresses wildlife crime using a crime scene to court approach, supporting Member States to more effectively prevent, identify, investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate wildlife crime. UNODC provides assistance along the entire criminal justice chain, in addition to supporting Member States to strengthen their preventive response. UNODC’s technical assistance on these issues is coordinated and delivered by the Global Programme and based on evidence, lessons learned and good practices. The Environment Team liaises closely with UNODC Country and Regional Offices and coordinates internally to leverage other areas of expertise within UNODC to ensure appropriate support for the design and delivery of technical assistance. For example, the Environment Team has strong partnerships with UNODC’s Corruption and Economic Crime Branch to help Member States prevent corruption and combat economic crime linked to crimes that affect the environment; with UNODC’s Organized Crime Branch to develop a series of legislative guides to combat crimes that affect the environment; and with the Research and Trends Analysis Branch to conduct global research and develop wildlife forensic capacity.
The Environment Team works in close coordination with national authorities – ranging from law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, to wildlife, forestry, and fisheries management authorities and any other agencies that may be relevant – and supports them in their efforts to better respond to crimes that affect the environment. Much of the core training material is based on manuals and tools jointly developed by national authorities and UNODC. UNODC strives to empower counterparts and create sustainability by fostering a strong sense of national ownership through its work.