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  • Franklin Vega

Crime symbiosis: illegal wildlife trade and drug trafficking

We interviewed scientist Michelle Anagnostou about wildlife trafficking and its relationship with drug trafficking. She is the author of several scientific articles on the relationship between these two crimes because for her "the illegal wildlife trade is a problem that deserves to be prioritized and studied with a holistic approach".

Michelle Anagnostou attended the 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES CoP19) in Panama City. Photo: Michelle Anagnostou

How does drug trafficking converge with wildlife trafficking? What does this convergence imply? The same routes? The same illegal protection (organized crime)?

Sophisticated organized crime groups sometimes have the network and infrastructure in place that allows them to diversify their interests, and may be simultaneously involved in multiple legal and illegal enterprises, especially shifting interests to wildlife, due to the low risks and high profits. Out of all of the serious and organized crimes identified in our research, drug trafficking emerged as the most commonly reported convergence with illegal wildlife trade. If a drug trafficking route is functioning without detection from law enforcement, and can also be used to accommodate both drug and wildlife products, the opportunity to maximize benefits is a clear motivation to move multiple types of contraband. For example, let's say you already have a network of corrupt officials, a mode of transporting contraband, and a way to launder the proceeds of crime: it stands to reason that a crime group might diversify its interests. This has been observed both within and across national borders, as both illegal drugs, and wildlife can have large domestic and international markets.

In addition, different criminal groups' operations can and do intersect. Different types of trafficking networks appear at times to work in collaboration as needed. This is what is referred to as "crime symbiosis." We also noted in some cases that drug traffickers can be the end consumers of illegally traded wildlife. For example, drug trafficking network leaders can purchase exotic animals, particularly big cats, for use as a symbol of power and wealth. Territorial narcotics trafficking groups can also charge a “tax” on any illicit shipments passing through the remote territories they control, and therefore supplement their profits through payments from wildlife traffickers who want to smuggle endangered plants and animals. Drug trafficking and wildlife trafficking networks can also share common fixers and facilitators, which are individuals that serve an essential intermediary role in the illegal supply chain for illegal wildlife trade and other criminal networks, but may not have loyalties to any particular criminal network. Fixers and facilitators can be semi-legitimate accountants, investors, lawyers, bankers, technicians, and brokers who facilitate corrupt transactions and connect groups to the international market.

Drug traffickers can also use the wildlife trade as a front, given the lack of attention the latter receives. As the penalties for committing wildlife crime offenses are generally nowhere near as high as the penalties for drug-related offenses in many jurisdictions, criminal organizations can make the same amount of profit, if not more, by becoming engaged in wildlife trafficking. For example, there have been cases of smugglers who ship cocaine along with the hides of highly endangered turtles. The animals can serve a double purpose when they can be sold and profited from, while also being used to cover up/ camouflage drug shipments.

How are the proceeds of illegal wildlife trafficking laundered?

Criminal groups who are involved in the trafficking of wildlife may also participate in other serious crimes such as fraud, corruption, extortion, intimidation, criminal violence, and money laundering. Money laundering is the practice of using financial transactions to conceal the source and destination of the “dirty” money. Different systems are used to conceal the illicit origins of money depending on the criminal network and the stage of the supply chain. Money can be transferred multiple times using small amounts to avoid detection, or transferred into various registered front, shell, and offshore companies to hide the original source, sometimes using fake personal information. In the illegal wildlife trade, front companies are often related to importing and exporting so that it can explain the international movement of products and money. Front companies can also be businesses linked to the legal wildlife trade such as taxidermists, antique shops, farms and breeding facilities, pet shops, zoos, traditional medicine/ pharmacies, décor and jewelry, and the fashion industry. Trade-based money laundering can also be used, which is based on commercial transactions, and can involve over or under-invoicing relative to the true cost of what is being shipped. Wildlife traffickers can use a variety of approaches to launder money. Front companies, shell companies, domestic bank transfers, international bank transfers, and Hawala-based and cash-based payments have been used in the ivory, rhino horn, abalone, and tiger trades.

The illegal wildlife trade is worth between 7 and 23 billion USD each year.

Have you quantified how much money wildlife trafficking involves?

The scale of wildlife trafficking and transnational organized crime, in general, has increased in recent years, making this issue increasingly important to address. This is fueled by the high profits, low risk of detection, corruption, and growing consumer demand in destination countries. Though efforts have been made to quantify how much money is involved in wildlife trafficking, they are only estimates and we can't say the true value with certainty. A commonly cited figure is that the illegal wildlife trade is worth between 7 and 23 billion USD each year. Roughly 6,000 different species of wild plants and animals are trafficked, and over 93,000 seizure records were reported to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) between 2016 to 2020.

What measures do you propose to curb wildlife trafficking?

Human well-being and biodiversity are intricately linked. The current rates of illegal harvesting and trafficking of wildlife pose serious harm to both wildlife and people, including threats to sustainable development. For example, the looting of wildlife reduces livelihood opportunities (such as legal wildlife trade and eco-tourism) for communities that may depend on their local wildlife. This threat tends to particularly affect rural and Indigenous communities. In addition, the money that goes into the hands of criminal networks deprives governments of legal commerce and tax revenues (which cannot then be used for development initiatives) and facilitates a low-risk environment for corruption. It also threatens public health by increasing the risk of the spread of zoonotic diseases. Therefore, collaborative international efforts to stop wildlife trafficking can bring together interrelated solutions to achieving sustainable development, biodiversity protection, and criminal and environmental justice. Some of these efforts include: strengthening international cooperation; reducing consumer demand for wildlife and raising awareness of the issue; updating legislation to reflect the severity of wildlife crime; enhancing enforcement, such as through improved systems for intelligence gathering, information sharing, and investigating international wildlife trafficking networks; addressing corruption; improving our understanding of wildlife trafficking through interdisciplinary research; and supporting communities with alternative livelihoods where multidimensional poverty is a driver.

There is a growing recognition that wildlife species and derivative parts are commonly and increasingly sold on virtual marketplaces and through internet platforms. This adds to the existing challenges of enforcement because it can be difficult to determine which jurisdiction online wildlife trade falls under. Internet-based trafficking introduces uncertainties relating to where the wildlife was taken from, how many items the seller has and where they are based, and which country has the authority to investigate and prosecute. Partnerships with the private sector, especially major technology and social media companies, are therefore an important step forward, as well as improving online wildlife crime legislation and criminal codes, and increasing the accessibility of opportunities for people to securely and anonymously report online wildlife trafficking when they see it.

The illegal wildlife trade is a problem that deserves to be prioritized and studied with a holistic approach.

Doesn't write about organized crime scare you? Have you suffered any kind of threat for talking about these issues involving corruption?

There is no denying that this is a challenging field to conduct research in. I try to stay vigilant when doing fieldwork and take many steps to mitigate risks. I also find that working with local organizations that understand the specific context and can safely facilitate connections is a great approach.

Why did you focus your studies on a complex and dangerous subject such as species trafficking and drug trafficking?

I have always loved spending time in and learning about nature and knew I wanted a career where I was contributing to protecting wildlife. But the more I learned about global environmental challenges, biodiversity loss, and overexploitation, the more I realized how complex these issues are and that we cannot protect biodiversity without looking at the issue from a holistic perspective. We need a thorough understanding of not only the environmental/ecological dimensions but also the intertwining human dimensions, such as international law, politics, crime science, sustainable development, etc. So not only do I think it is an incredibly important area of research to be able to understand solutions to wildlife trafficking, but I also find the complexities of the topic fascinating. I hope that my research will contribute to more evidence-informed approaches, and support the recognition of the illegal wildlife trade as an issue worth prioritizing.

Short bio:

Michelle Anagnostou is a Ph.D. Candidate and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Doctoral Fellow in Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo, Canada. She is also a sessional lecturer and a supervisor for honors undergraduate thesis students in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. Her doctoral research seeks to understand how the global illegal wildlife trade converges with other types of serious and transnational organized crime. More broadly, her research interests lie in the intersections between criminal, social, and environmental justice. She completed her MSc (Distinction) in Conservation and the International Wildlife Trade at the University of Kent in England, and her BSc (Honors) in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto in Canada.

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