Wildlife smuggling is worth up to R348bn a year - and the finance sector can help stop it

Imire Rhino and Wildlife Conservation

Around the world, endangered species are being driven to the point of extinction by the demand for illegal wildlife products. Despite our best efforts, the criminals are still winning. To turn the tide, we need to rethink our approach. That means recognising that everyone has a part to play – including the financial sector.

The scale of the challenge is enormous, and the statistics are alarming. More than 30 000 elephants are killed each year. Tigers have become so rare that there are more of them living in US captivity than in the wild. And there is a real human cost as well - approximately 1 000 wildlife rangers have been killed in the last 10 years while trying to protect endangered species.

This isn’t simply a conservation issue. The reality is that the illegal wildlife trade is an organised crime which fuels violence, drives corruption, and impoverishes communities.

This brutal business is now worth between $7 - 23bn annually (around R105 - R348bn at current rates) to the criminals behind it. Research also shows that it is often linked to other damaging crimes: According to David Fein, two-thirds of the cases of illegal wildlife trade analysed were connected to the narcotics trade. That means that combating the illegal wildlife trade offers an opportunity to better tackle the threat of organised crime.

Tackle the business model

It is a mistake to think we can just arrest our way out of this problem. Where one shipment is stopped, another will take its place. Instead, we need to disrupt the business model behind the trade. Its Achilles heel is the very thing that motivates it – the money. The need to move, store and realise proceeds gives governments and the financial sector the power to identify criminal networks via their financial footprints and help close the net.

However, to date, the illegal wildlife trade has barely received any attention as a form of financial crime. In fact, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, only 26% of jurisdictions look at the finances behind the trade. That means there is an important opportunity for banks to strengthen the fight against the trade.

To crack down on the trafficking and tackle the wildlife crime, the financial sector can do three things.

First, the financial system must become attuned to the activity that courses through the system and apply the armoury of tools that they use to fight other financial crimes. At Standard Chartered, we’re training bank branch tellers to better spot potentially suspicious transactions relating to the illegal wildlife trade, we’re making this crime an area of focus for our financial crime investigators and, through our Correspondent Banking Academies, working with clients to better understand and respond to the illegal wildlife trade.

Second, raising awareness of the threat of the illegal wildlife trade, both to endangered species and through the organised crime it supports, is crucial to building and sustaining action. That’s why our latest brand campaign, showing across 11 countries, has focused on the illegal wildlife trade. Through the trusted relationships we have with millions of customers around the world, including in many of the countries crucial to the demand, supply, or transit of illegal wildlife products, we can draw attention to the damage the trade can cause.

No one organisation, government or law enforcement agency can combat wildlife trafficking alone. We will only succeed if we work in partnership with each other.  That’s why coalitions of NGOs, financial institutions and wildlife experts like the United For Wildlife Financial Taskforce are so important. We’re were proud to have played a central role in its establishment, and we must expand and accelerate partnership action.

We are hopeful that the world is approaching a tipping point in the efforts to combat the trade. It’s time for the financial sector to take a stand, and by working together we can make a real difference.

Kweku Bedu-Addo is CEO of Standard Chartered Southern Africa. Views expressed are his own. 

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