Beyond Cecil: The Extensive Network Behind Wild Crimes

Beyond Cecil: The Extensive Network Behind Wild Crimes

by Adam Welti

The killing of Cecil the lion by an American dentist on a hunting expedition in Zimbabwe sparked outrage after it was revealed that the iconic animal had been lured out of a protected area and into a game reserve. The case fueled a public outcry, bringing attention to the issue of trophy hunting and leading American air carriers to revise policies to prohibit the transport of such animals.

But the large-scale trade of wild animals and plants continues on—with dangerous consequences for biodiversity, economic stability, and the security of entire nations. As armed and organized criminal networks continue to trade these goods, successful solutions require a multifaceted approach and must include empowering local communities to manage and protect their own natural resources.

While the loss of an animal like Cecil is hard to quantify, estimating the value of an entire illicit trade network is even more challenging.  Nonetheless, in an attempt to quantify its impact, the World Wildlife Fund estimated the illicit wildlife trade at $8 billion per year. Animal products are in high demand on the global market and fetch prices surpassing precious metals: elephant ivory has been selling on the black market for more than $1,000 per kilo while rhino horn has reached values surpassing that of platinum and gold, selling for more than $45,000 per kilo.

The scale of illegal logging is similarly remarkable, estimated to be worth $30-100 billion annually. The United Nations Environment Program has estimated that terrorist group Al Shabaab has earned more than $35 million by trading charcoal and setting up illegal checkpoints to tax its transport in Eastern Africa.

The scale of illicit trade in wildlife goes far beyond what President Obama termed “small-scale, opportunistic” level harvests, like that of Cecil. Now, the trade is akin to a large-scale “slaughter commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates.”

The illicit wildlife trade is leading to devastating losses to biological diversity including an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 elephants per year in Africa. With an estimated poaching rate of 7.4 percent in 2012 and growth rates of around 5 percent, African elephants face a dire future. Rhinos, which have entirely disappeared from several Asian and African countries in recent years, have faced increased poaching of approximately 50 in 2007 to more than 1,000 in 2013.  If current levels of poaching of rhinos continues, deaths could overtake births. And great apes, which play vital roles in ecosystems in tropical regions, are estimated to be facing losses of more than 3,000 per year. Losses of species at such high numbers is problematic for population levels that have been identified to be critical or endangered.

In addition to the impacts on biological diversity, the trade is funding an entire illegal economy. Law enforcement and international advocacy organizations have evidence that the trade in elephant ivory is being run by groups such as the Sudanese Janjaweed and the Lord’s Resistance Army. These groups operate in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they use the illegal ivory trade to purchase guns, ammunition, and food while displacing communities, recruiting child soldiers, and forcing women and children into sexual slavery.

The international community has begun to acknowledge the impacts of the illicit wildlife trade and to take action. The U.S. government, through President Obama’s 2013 Executive Order on Wildlife Trafficking, aims to greatly increase inter-agency coordination within the U.S. and to strengthen cooperation with host country governments and NGO partners in East Africa—for example through programs to improve the rule of law and to increase awareness of the repercussions of the illicit wildlife trade on both wildlife and humans.

To combat the importation and sale of illegally harvested wood domestically, the U.S. Congress amended the Lacey Act in 2008 to prohibit commerce in illegally sourced plants and their products.  As a result, importation of any plant or plant product into the U.S. now requires country-of-origin labeling to include species identification. In addition, the law sets penalties for non-compliance, and as the recent settlement between the U.S. Justice Department and Lumber Liquidators indicates, the U.S. is taking enforcement of the law seriously.  Similar legislation, termed the EU Timber Regulations, was passed in the European Union with the aim of prohibiting imports of illegally harvested timber by EU member states.

Strong international laws such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) exist and include enforceable provisions. But given the illicit nature of the trade and its ability to circumvent traditional governance systems, it will only be effectively curtailed through a multipronged approach, not just through international laws.  Raising awareness in countries where products are sold will be crucial to reducing demand for these products, and hopefully their value. In China, for instance, WildAid is working to reduce demand and change cultural attitudes for shark fin soup, a major threat to shark populations throughout the world.

Community empowerment to sustainably manage natural resources is another necessary step to effect lasting change in many countries.  Efforts to ensure communities are better able to directly benefit from the sustainably managed use of natural resources, such as biodiverse forests, is key to any long-term sustainability.

As the U.S., EU, and other partners join forces to combat the growing trade of these resources, especially as they relate to funding international terrorism, human trafficking, and the arms trade, pressure to stop the trade will grow. What will likely be missed without consistent, conscious effort in collaboration with partner governments will be the empowerment of communities to manage their natural resources.  It is this wealth creation at the rural level that will lead to conservation of animals such as Cecil. Without this creation of wealth, we risk losing iconic species forever to an illicit market that fuels instability around the world and threatens to drastically change the landscapes in which we live.

Image "Cub loving his dad" Courtesy Tambako The Jaguar / CC BY-ND 2.0

About the Author

Adam Welti has worked as an Africa Natural Resource Management Specialist with the Africa and Middle East Program at the US Forest Service’s International Programs since 2011. His work has largely focused on projects in West and North Africa including in Liberia, Guinea, Morocco, and Ghana where he manages projects related to environmental and natural resource governance, climate change, rangeland management, agroforestry, and sustainable livelihood activities. His work includes both policy and technical level engagement to ensure more sustainable management of some of the Earth’s most precious natural resources. Prior to joining the US Forest Service, Adam worked with the Rainforest Alliance in their chain of custody forest certification program. Adam served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tiguert, Morocco in the High Atlas Mountains. He holds a BS in Environment and Natural Resource Science from the University of Minnesota and a MALD with an emphasis on international environment and resource policy from The Fletcher School.

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