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