A rapidly vanishing world

2013-09-06 00:00

IF you believe what you read in the media, then wildlife crime is now the third or fourth most serious criminal activity in the world. It allegedly comes in behind drug, firearms and maybe human trafficking. How do we know this? Well, the truth is, we don’t. It is just a guess. Or what we these days call a guesstimate.

We know about narcotic smuggling because almost all customs and police agencies around the world religiously report their seizures. At the same time, bodies such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime measure how much raw heroin and cocaine is being produced in places such as Colombia and Afghanistan. That’s really helpful, because by comparing the different sets of figures, we can judge how successful the law-enforcement agencies are in intercepting narcotics as they move from producing countries to dealers and consumers.

Lack of information

But, at the moment, there is no central database collecting information about the wildlife contraband moving across borders, whether that is a rhino horn, a bottle of tiger-bone wine, a young chimpanzee, a boat-load of shark fins or a cargo container full of illegally logged timber. This is not for want of trying, though. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) secretariat used to have one. Interpol and the World Customs Organisation have them. The trouble is, countries don’t supply information. Or if they do, it isn’t detailed enough or they don’t supply it regularly enough. Now, some of those countries will tell you that their data-protection laws prevent them from providing information. Nonsense. Those same countries are members of Interpol and the World Customs Organisation, and have been for years. They know that the information can be supplied along secure communication channels and that it will be used solely for the purposes of crime detection or crime prevention. The reason they don’t supply it is because they can’t be bothered to. Shameful, isn’t it?

It gets worse. Not only do we not know the scale of the problem, we don’t know who is involved. That’s because, aside from not reporting seizures, very few countries are telling the international law-enforcement agencies about the people they are arresting. And they often don’t even tell other countries either, including the nation where the detained person comes from. Pathetic isn’t it?

Interesting exception

There are exceptions. There are some countries that are excellent at communication, collaboration and co-ordination. But they are, truly, exceptions. And I want to stick with exceptions because one of these is really interesting.

We know that large-scale seizures of ivory, headed towards Asia from Africa, have more than doubled since 2009. In 2011 alone, large-scale interceptions led to over 26 tons of ivory being seized. That’s a lot of dead elephants. How do we know this? Because of the exception.

Many years ago, the countries in Cites decided that efforts should be made to collate all information about illegal trade in ivory, especially data relating to individual seizures. And it doesn’t matter where the seizure takes place, whether it is from a poacher in Africa, a smuggler stopped in a European airport or a stallholder in Asia. The main reason Cites wanted the information was to see whether the decisions it was making, about whether to authorise legal trade in ivory or not, were having an effect on illegal trade. It was a next-to-impossible question to answer, but they thought it should be attempted.

What they created was a database called the Elephant Trade Information System (Etis). It is managed by a non-governmental organisation called Traffic, which is linked to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). Cites and law-enforcement agencies around the world fill in a form when an ivory seizure is made and they send it to Traffic. The information is then entered into a computer. The idea is to record where and when the seizure happened, the weight of the ivory, whether it is a raw tusk or carved ivory, and an estimate of its value. Where possible (this isn’t always known), they include where the ivory came from and where it was headed to. Since 1989, 89 countries have supplied information and the database now holds over 18 000 records. Impressive, isn’t it?

Potential not being realised

But, it isn’t being used to its full potential. For one thing, the information is not supplied real-time. Most countries either submit information as a bundle of forms every few months, or supply it in a computerised data format once a year. And because it is going to an NGO, they do not fill up the part of the form that asks for details about any person involved in the seizure. That’s perfectly correct: it is confidential information about an individual and that should only be provided to a law-enforcement agency. These two elements mean, however, that this incredible source of knowledge cannot be mined for criminal-intelligence purposes. Also, when the Etis data is analysed every two years or so, the picture of illegal trade in ivory that emerges is historical, out of date and of limited use for the law-enforcement community. A shame, isn’t it?

If one could encourage countries to submit details of seizures immediately after they happen, and if the database was managed by a police agency entitled to store confidential information, its potential would multiply enormously.

Reporting information in

real time

Politicians are currently struggling to find meaningful ways to respond to what appears to be non-stop increases in poaching and illegal trade in fauna and flora. Some of the world’s most iconic species, such as tigers, elephants and rhinos, are facing extinction. Tigers are literally on the brink of extinction.

There are going to be several high-level meetings and seminars on this subject before the end of 2013. I wrote recently that politicians cannot, and should not, set the agenda of law-enforcement agencies. What they can do, though, is demand to be supplied with information. And it is high time that they did. Logical, isn’t it?

How can the world respond to international wildlife crime if decision-makers in governments and law-enforcement bodies don’t know the scale of the problem, the nature of it and who is involved? What politicians can do, and must do, is tell all the bosses of the world’s customs, police, game warden, forest guard and fishery protection officers to order their staff to start reporting details of all the interceptions, the seizures, the detentions and the arrests they make. And report it when it can make a difference, not in six months’ or a year’s time.

Storing and analysis

Someone then needs to store and analyse the incoming data, extract the useful information and disseminate it to those who need to know and, importantly, who can use it to make more seizures and arrests. Some of the resulting information will be relevant to maybe just one particular country, but a lot of it will have benefits regionally and internationally. Ah, I hear you ask, who is going to do this? Well, since 2010, we have been fortunate to have the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). It is a partnership between Cites, Interpol, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Bank and the World Customs Organisation. ICCWC has the expertise and oversight to decide, surely?

Personally, I’d ask Interpol to take the job on, since it has the most crime-intelligence analysts and probably the best computer systems. It will, of course, need additional staff if it is allocated this task. But I imagine the G8 countries, given their recent commitment to “tackle the illegal trafficking of protected or endangered wildlife species”, could come up with the funds necessary to employ a few more people in Interpol’s headquarters in France. Traffic has operated the Etis database with just one full-time staff member, whose work is supplemented by others from time to time, but that system records only ivory-related information. And Interpol already has a reporting format called Ecomessage, designed to record all environmental-crime information, which is perfectly suited to this task.

If one wanted to engage in a trial or experiment, maybe one of the ICCWC partners should take over management of Etis? But with the reporting forms being completed in their entirety. If 89 countries can be persuaded to supply data to an NGO, surely they will be willing to redirect it to an inter-governmental organisation? Especially if their political masters instruct them to. And if they can do it for elephants, they can do it for other species too. Reasonable, isn’t it?

We keep highlighting the awful impact that crime is having upon the world’s natural resources. But we are stumbling around in the semi-dark while trying to respond. Would it not be better to gather the information that already exists at the national level, shine an analytical light on it and see properly what we need to do?

Worth a try, isn’t it? — News24.

• John M. Sellar was, until 2011, chief of enforcement for Cites, where he assisted countries in combating wildlife crime. Now retired, he undertakes work as an anti-smuggling, fraud and organised-crime consultant.

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