How the illegal wildlife trade contributes to security concerns

Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are, by definition, security threats to some of the Earth’s most endangered animals and least-common plants. The WWF estimate that as many as 20,000 elephants are killed each year, and that wild tiger populations have been decimated to just 5% of what their total strength was at the beginning of the 20th Century. Forests are being plundered at extraordinarily fast rates for their valuable and rare woods, which is in turn destroying entire ecosystems. Yet, as much as such illicit activities are threatening to the world’s natural environment, they are increasingly being recognised by security experts and politicians alike as safety concerns for humans, too.

Believed to be worth up to $23 billion per annum, the illegal wildlife trade – which includes dealing in ivory and animal skins, as well as rare plants and woods – is a multifaceted problem which involves nations both rich and poor. Naturally, therefore, criminal gangs stand to make a good deal of money by participating in what is one of the world’s most valuable black markets, along with drugs, human trafficking, and counterfeiting.

A multi-consequential issue…

The trade in illegal wildlife can spawn insecurity in a number of different ways. Most obviously, organised criminals and terrorist cells can directly partake in the trade, and plough the immense profits they make into wreaking havoc amidst human civilian populations. A report published by the Elephant Action League, for instance, claims that ivory trafficking in East Africa alone could be supplying up to 40% of the funds necessary for maintaining the international terrorist group al-Shabaab’s fighters. Criminals and terrorists are believed to view poaching as an attractive method of raising money because wildlife crime offers high rewards with lower risks, relative to other felonies.

Yet, it is not only intrastate actors who have exploited wildlife to bankroll their destabilising activities. A report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare highlights how rogue states – a most obvious source of insecurity for civilians – have historically financed themselves in part through the illegal wildlife trade, often turning their military might on megafauna like elephants and rhinos in order to harvest their valuable tusks and horns.

Another, more nuanced, perspective on how the illegal wildlife trade threatens human populations can be seen in the way that when natural capital is unsustainably extracted from an ecosystem, that ecosystem duly degrades. This creates insecurity on two fronts. Intrinsically, as the environment deteriorates, it becomes less able to sustain its inhabitants – jeopardising their very survival. But instrumentally, too, this in turn may drive the forced migration of so-called environmental refugees, potentially creating “inter-human conflicts” when the aforementioned refugees settle amongst other civilians, and resources become scarce or more contested.

Similarly, another thought-provoking yet all too often underappreciated source of insecurity posed by the illegal wildlife trade is the way in which it contributes to the prevalence of zoonotic diseases. The importation of live animals, or unsanitary bushmeat, serves as a serious hazard to countries one may not initially associate with contributing to poaching. Indeed, it is believed that the illegal wildlife trade has played a role in the proliferation of certain high-profile diseases, such as Ebola and SARS.

… requiring multi-dimensional solution

One can see from the above that efforts to quell the illegal wildlife trade need not exclusively be bound up in the conservation paradigm. Poaching can be inextricably linked to human security in terms of how it can fund terrorism and support rogue states, as well as creating environmental refugees and spreading diseases. Accordingly, some have argued that the trade in illegal wildlife ought to be conceptualised as a focus not only for conservation groups, but also Government departments such as the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department of Health.

Solving the problem of poaching will need to be a concerted and coordinated endeavour, best done through joined up Government and international collaboration where practicable. It will depend also on limiting both the supply and demand of illegal wildlife produce. On the former, this may be achieved through measures such as increasing funding for park rangers, and equipping customs officials with the latest technology to scan for would-be smuggled exports of illegal wildlife produce. Closer to home, wildlife groups have called on the Government to explore extending the trade in ivory prohibition to include pre-1947 ivory, as it is claimed that the loophole acts as a cover for the trading of that which was harvested post-1947 (i.e. possibly ‘fresh’ ivory), which can be difficult to age accurately.

On the latter point – lowering demand – it may appear to be an insurmountable challenge, given just how intimately products such as ivory or shark fins are linked to certain cultures. Yet, it would be premature to be overly pessimistic. Japan, for example, was once one of the world’s biggest importers of rhino ivory, but following stringent regulation and changing social attitudes, it now only imports a fraction of the total ivory it once did. In China, too, one advertisement campaign alone was found to lower respondents’ proclivity to purchase ivory from 54% to 26%.

When up against powerful and ruthless criminal organisations, conservationists may feel they are fighting a losing battle. Recently, however, there has been a trickle of good news – from wild tiger numbers increasing for the first time in over a century, to Nepal successfully ensuring that no rhino poaching took place for two whole years. But there is still much more that can be done. Raising the awareness amongst Governments of the ways in which poaching can threaten not only the world’s most endangered plants and animals, but also their citizens, could be a prudential place to begin. 

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue

Why solving the global wildlife crisis could help build a stronger, healthier Britain

Data released today by WWF and the Zoological Society of London sends a shocking message about the health of our planet: global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 58% since 1970.  The Living Planet Report shows that without urgent action to reduce humanity’s impact on species and ecosystems, vertebrate populations are projected to decline by a staggering 67% from 1970 levels by the end of this decade. 

Human activity including agriculture, pollution and hunting has eroded populations of African elephants in Tanzania, maned wolves in Brazil, leatherback turtles in the tropical Atlantic, and orcas in European waters.  We lose an area of forest equivalent to a football pitch every two seconds, we have overfished our oceans, and through over abstraction and dam building some rivers no longer reach the sea.  This is not just a faraway problem: the RSPB’s recent State of Nature report showed that almost 60% of our native species, from kingfishers to hedgehogs to turtle doves, have declined in recent decades.

We ignore the decline of other species at our peril – for they are the barometer that measures our impact on the world that sustains us.  We are entering an era where climate change, floods and health costs from pollution threaten our economic prosperity, resilience, and wellbeing. This is arguably the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced - but great challenges can be the catalyst for great progress.  By basing all future policy decisions on the understanding that a healthy natural environment is a crucial underpinning to our economy and society, Ministers could not just help save the global environment, but also markedly improve the lives of millions of people. 

Laudably, the Government says it wants this generation to be the first to leave the natural environment in an improved condition.  So as we prepare to leave the EU, Ministers must jettison any temptation to erode the environmental rules and standards their predecessors worked to shape.  Instead, they should build on these achievements.  

Post-Brexit, there is no reason why the UK should not lead the world in running a successful, low-carbon economy that respects and nurtures precious wildlife and wild places, at home and abroad.  The promised 25-year environment plan, due for publication in draft form later this year, could start this process.  It should be explicitly backed by the Prime Minister, boast strong proposals for reform, and apply to every corner of government.

What should this plan contain?

It should set ambitious goals for restoration and improvement of our natural resources - including forest cover, urban green space, air, water and soil quality - and put in place a transparent monitoring system so our natural capital can be managed as prudently as our financial resources.  

It should hold all government departments and public bodies accountable for how their policies and actions will affect nature for generations to come. For example, the impact of any new housing, transport or energy infrastructure should be assessed against rigorous environmental standards – including on carbon emissions.  

Nature doesn’t recognise borders - and our actions at home can also impact wildlife on the other side of the planet.  So the plan should set out provisions to measure and manage the UK’s impact on nature in other countries, so that unsustainable supply chains, for example in food and raw materials such as wood, palm oil and soy, become a thing of the past.  Savvy businesses – many of which already take advice from WWF in order to decrease their environmental impact – would have every reason to back sensible regulation that levels the playing field and helps preserve essential resources over the long term. 

There are precedents to build on here.  The Paris agreement on climate change (which British Ministers played an active role in shaping, and which Theresa May is committed to adopting) has been ratified by over 50 nations.  The Government is a signatory to the UN’s sustainable development goals and has a proud record in fighting the illegal wildlife trade, recently backing new restrictions on the international trade in threatened species including pangolins and African grey parrots. December’s conference of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is a vital forum for the Government to reiterate that it is serious about helping tackle the global loss of species.  And a 25-year plan that tackles our international footprint and provides inter-generational accountability would allow the UK to show international leadership.

A lot can change within just one generation.  So allow me to imagine what life could be like in only 25 years’ time. Flooding in towns and cities could be reduced with restored wetlands and rivers which, now brimming with wildlife, provide us with beautiful places to spend our free time.  Farmers will be paid a decent income to create beautiful, wildlife-rich habitats, using natural methods to improve productivity and contribute to societal benefits such as clean water and reduced flooding.  Our seas will be full of life, supporting a restored and sustainable fishing industry. Housing and infrastructure developments will be located where they will do minimal environmental damage, working with nature rather than against it. Children will be healthier both mentally and physically as they play in green space in all our cities, towns and villages, and their future will be more secure as our carbon emissions fall to almost nothing.  

And new industries – boosted by a low-carbon Industrial Strategy - will create jobs in an increasingly resource-efficient, circular economy in which materials get reused and recycled, we consume in ways that do not leave a footprint internationally, and the value of nature is incorporated into business plans and government policy.

Sensible stewardship of the natural world is not an alternative to enterprise; on the contrary, it is now a prerequisite for the economic and social health of communities and nations.  As a global green industrial revolution gets underway, the Government should not be afraid to use its power to ensure the UK leads rather than lags behind.

Mike Barrett is Director of Science and Policy at WWF-UK

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.