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Preventing and combatting wildlife trafficking – a global imperative

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By John Scanlon

· 13 min read

There are many things that need to happen at all levels if we hope to seriously tackle the scourge of wildlife trafficking – this includes addressing both demand and supply, working across source, transit and destination countries, building the capacity of the criminal justice system in each country, and having in place sound national and international laws.

Here I focus on the need for enhanced international cooperation and the importance of strengthening the international legal framework that facilitates such cooperation. I am going to explore the case for a new international legal agreement on wildlife crime – an agreement taking the form of an additional Protocol under the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), on combating and preventing the illicit trafficking of wildlife, as has been called for by the Presidents of Angola, Costa Rica, Gabonand Malawi. Protocols currently exist for tackling trafficking in persons, migrant smuggling and trafficking in firearms.

When talking of wildlife, I am including all wild fauna and flora, including all fish and tree species, not just the 38,000 species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which only constitute 0.5% of our world’s eight million species.



Over a period of three years, from 2010-2012, it was conservatively estimated that over 100,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. Gains have been made since then, but they are fragile. The photo you see with this article was taken from an event held to destroy 359 pieces of confiscated African elephant ivory weighing over 1,500 kilograms in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2016. INTERPOL took forensic samples of the ivory, and it was determined that it originated mostly from Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Through the good work of Sri Lankan authorities, they ascertained that the contraband was intended to be shipped to the UAE, and transited through Kenya and Sri Lanka, where it was seized. It gives you a sense of what we are up against. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 6,000 species protected under CITES are being trafficked.


So why do we need to scale up our international efforts? Reports from IPBES, UNEP, UNODC, the World Bank, amongst others, graphically describe the severe environmental consequences of wildlife crime, for our climate, ecosystems, wild animals and plants, as well as for human and animal health. But the damage goes deeper than that; we know these crimes involve the theft of vital natural resources from local and indigenous communities, they discourage legitimate investors, and undermine the governments of source countries – and they do this by depriving them of revenue, fuelling corruption, destroying livelihoods, injuring and killing rangers, and creating national and regional instability. If we add the costs of the impacts on ecosystems, then The World Bank estimates the costs of these crimes at a staggering $1-2 trillion each year.

By way of example, elephants play a vital role in ensuring healthy ecosystems and healthy ecosystems sequester more carbon. And Ralph Chami, of the International Monetary Fund, has come up with a value of $1.75 million for each forest elephant, based solely on the climate services it provides.


Successfully tackling these crimes demands high levels of cooperation at national and international levels and for some time now, I have had the opportunity to help galvanise support amongst countries, law enforcement agencies, and many others, to combat and prevent wildlife crime.

I served as CITES Secretary General for eight years, from 2010-2018, at which time I was directly involved in multiple collective efforts to achieve this objective, including establishing, institutionalising and attracting resources for the International Consortium to Combat Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) – which I chaired for its first eight years.

I mention this because, I have seen for myself the progress we have made through heightened international cooperation and national action. These endeavours have resulted in greater attention and resources being dedicated to the issue, which is encouraging.

But it’s equally clear that these gains are both insufficient and fragile. Notwithstanding these efforts, we are still nowhere near ending wildlife crime. Instead, we see these crimes continue to escalate against a backdrop of rapidly changing environmental, human health, and security challenges.

Just look at the plight of the pangolin for example: despite being given what is called ‘the highest level of protection under CITES’, poaching and trafficking has reached record levels, with thousands of these amazing animals continuing to be illicitly taken, trafficked and consumed. Over recent weeks we see reports of escalating poaching of rhino in South Africa for their horn.

And in February of this year park rangers were tragically killed in an ambush in W National Park, Benin. Horrific incidents like these are happening far too often. We must better tackle the demand and the trafficking to relieve the pressure on our brave rangers who are serving in the front lines, and this will require much deeper international cooperation and national action right across source, transit and destination countries.


There comes a point when one must recognise that what is being done is not enough. My focus here is on the international legal framework. Our current framework is not fit for purpose in addressing today’s global environmental realities, especially as it relates to the scourge of wildlife crime.

CITES is often referred to as providing some form of legal framework. I know this Convention extremely well. It is an important Convention, I love it, but it is limited in scope. It was not designed to deal with wildlife crime. It is a 50 year old trade-related convention, not a crime-related convention. It does not oblige States to criminalise breaches of the Convention, it only applies to cross border movement of wildlife, and not, for example, to illegal harvesting or poaching, and it applies to a limited number of species.

CITES obliges Parties to create management and scientific authorities, not enforcement authorities, and it is not a natural forum for the enforcement or wider criminal justice community. But, in the absence of any alternative at the time, we made the best possible use of CITES to help galvanise international cooperation and national action. And with some success.

But CITES does not provide the international legal framework we need, and a comprehensive legally binding regime for tackling wildlife crime, within the framework of international criminal law, rather than trade law, is way beyond the scope of CITES.

Did you know, that there are over one million legal trade transactions of listed species reported under CITES every year. Yet, we see regular examples of the abuse of the CITES permitting system, most recently with the trafficking of rare birds into Europe. CITES has its work cut out for it in adequately regulating this legal, sustainable trade, which is where it must direct its efforts.

And we must address all species that are being trafficked, not just the limited number of species listed under CITES, being just 0.5% of the world’s eight million, species (the UN World Wildlife Crime Report 2020 says 6,000 of which are represented in illegal trade). The UN World Wildlife Crime Report notes that “millions of species” that are not listed by CITES may be illegally harvested and traded, especially timber and fish.

It makes no sense to only pay attention to a limited number of species, and usually only once they are already threatened with extinction. We need to intervene early to stop a species getting to the point of being endangered!

Leaving things as they are will not cut it. We are going to have to shake up the status quo and make transformative changes to our system if we want to change course.


There are many disparate, non-binding Resolutions, and initiatives, in this area – from CITES, the UN Crime Commission, the UN General Assembly and more. They are all good in their own right, but they are not legally binding, and have not generated the level of political support, engagement of relevant agencies, or the necessary financial or human resources or national action that is required to end wildlife crime.

While there is this scattered array of Resolutions, there is no global centre of gravity for advancing cooperative efforts to combat and prevent wildlife crime, or for reviewing the progress made.

We must now embed both combating and preventing wildlife crime where it belongs, namely into the international criminal law framework, with the UNODC, the UN Conventions it hosts, the UN Crime Commission, and the UN Vienna duty station unequivocally leading a global cooperative, coordinated effort, including in reviewing progress.

A binding legal agreement will provide an enduring global platform that will act as a catalyst for heightened international cooperation and national action, both of which are desperately needed.

And, if adopted, a Protocol would be the first time that a crime that has an effect on the environment is directly addressed through the international criminal law framework, and be the first global legally binding instrument to include an agreed definition on wildlife crime.

As with the existing Protocol on trafficking in persons, such a definition could facilitate a convergence in national approaches, thereby enhancing international cooperation.


The content of a Protocol is something that States would determine through an intergovernmental negotiating process. However, a Protocol would include specific obligations on how States will work together to combat and prevent these serious crimes.

Drawing upon the three existing UNTOC Protocols on human trafficking, migrant smuggling and firearms trafficking, as well as national legislation from many countries, (including Australia, China, Mexico, Mozambique, and the US,) as well as the relevant UNODC guide on drafting legislation to combat wildlife crime, EWC has, in order to help facilitate the discussion, outlined some of the provisions that could be contemplated. So, what are the sorts of provisions that one could find within such an agreement?

States could, through a Protocol agree for the first time on a definition of wildlife crime, and on a wide range of obligations to both prevent and combat such crimes. For example they could:

- set out the conduct that is to be criminalised.

- include any species of wild fauna or flora within the scope of the Protocol, including fish and tree species, that is protected under any international or, importantly, any national law.

- address the harvesting, taking, possession, purchase, sale (including by electronic means), import or export, or introduction from the sea of illicitly traded wildlife.

- make it a criminal offence to import any wildlife, or wildlife product into a country if it has been acquired in contravention of the national laws of the source country, representing a remarkable expression of comity between nations, a mutual respect for one another’s laws.

- specifically address the role and responsibilities of the carriers of contraband, such as airlines and shipping.

- require the verification of the legitimacy and validity of documents, including any documents suspected of being misused, which is a big problem under CITES.

- cooperate on training and technical assistance.

- raise public awareness, and to take measures to discourage demand.

- share information, such as on known groups active in illicit trafficking, on their concealment methods, and known transport routes, and legislative experiences and practices.

- share forensic samples, the importance of which we have seen with the excellent work done on elephant ivory by Dr Sam Wasser and others, and

- consider measures that will permit the denial of entry or revocation of visas of persons implicated in the commission of offences.

Some other suggestions have been made by States and organisations we have interacted with, such as to include obligations relating to the protection of environmental defenders and whistleblowers, taking measures to prevent abuse of the internet, and on the return of seized and confiscated contraband to the source country.

Under the UNTOC, in order to trigger its general tools for cross border cooperation, States must make all offences punishable by four years imprisonment or more. This is not required if crimes are included in a Protocol. As such, a Protocol on wildlife crime would automatically trigger its provisions. This is very helpful, and it would reflect the desirability of providing for a broader range of penalty options for wildlife crimes, based on the value of the contraband and the level of harm caused, including community service orders, restitution, paying damages and fines, as well as imprisonment.


We have seen extraordinary leadership from the Presidents of Angola, Costa Rica, Gabonand Malawi who have made a powerful united call for a new Protocol [1]. This visionary call was made by the Presidents of four biodiverse rich, source countries that are deeply committed to combating wildlife crime. In their statements, they have recognised that our global agreements and aspirations to protect our biodiversity on land and at sea, tackle climate change, prevent the next pandemic and achieve sustainable development, will not be met, unless we seriously scale up our cooperative efforts to tackle wildlife crime.

Support for an additional Protocol under the UNTOC has also been expressed by the European Commission, in the EU Strategy to tackle Organised Crime 2021-2025 as well as by many individual speakers and organisations, coming from across all regions [2].

Angola, Kenya and Peru took this call one step further in May of this year when they presented a ground-breaking resolution on “Strengthening the international legal framework for international cooperation to prevent and combat illicit trafficking in wildlife”, to the 31st Session of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ), which was adopted by consensus.

This Resolution invites Member States to “provide the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime with their views on possible responses, including the potential of an additional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, to address any gaps that may exist in the current international legal framework to prevent and combat illicit trafficking in wildlife”. It is the first time that a UN resolution has mentioned a potential new global agreement on tackling illicit wildlife trafficking.

The Resolution also invites Member States to share their “experiences, good practices and challenges when preventing and combating illicit trafficking in wildlife, and their national legislation in this sphere”.

This historic resolution was also co-sponsored by other Member States, namely Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Honduras, Malawi, Morocco, Mozambique, Paraguay, Philippines and the United States of America.

In adopting it, Member States have embarked on an historic process, recognising that moves towards the creation of a global agreement on wildlife crime will be a long and winding road. Over the next 12 months, in preparation for the 32nd session of the CCPCJ in 2023, States will formulate their views on an additional Protocol to the UNTOC on illicit wildlife trafficking and engage in a constructive and inclusive dialogue.


Finally, to put it in a nutshell, it’s the local and indigenous communities living amongst wildlife, legitimate investors, and the governments of source countries, as well as our global biodiversity, climate, health, and security, that should benefit from the world’s wildlife, and not organised criminals.

Achieving that aspiration is in everyone’s interest, but if we leave the current system as it is, we won’t get there. A new international agreement on tackling wildlife crime is just one of many complementary actions that must be taken - but it is an integral part of making that aspiration become a reality. Thank you.

Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.


[1] The President of Angola, H.E. João Lourenço last September called for a new global agreement to combat wildlife crime taking the form of an additional Protocol under the UNTOC. In doing so, H.E. joined with the President of Gabon, H.E. Ali Bongo Ondimba and the President of Costa Rica, H.E. Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who jointly called for a new global agreement on wildlife crime, in May of last year. And on 16 February, the President of Malawi, H.E. Dr Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, joined this call through a powerful statement.

[2] Including Ambassador Judi Wakhungu, Kenyan Ambassador to France and former Minister for the Environment, Dr Ji-Qiang Zhang, President of China’s Global Environment Institute, Dr. Jorge Caillaux, President of the Peruvian Environmental Law Society, Hon. Lee White, Gabon’s Minister of Water, Forests, the Sea, and Environment, and Dr Jane Goodall, amongst many others. Additionally, EWC currently has 26 International Champion organisations coming from across all sectors and regions that are supporting calls for such an agreement. These 26 Champion organisations include ADM Capital, the African Wildlife Foundation, ENV Vietnam, the Global Coalition to Fight Financial Crime, the IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law, the International Rangers Federation, the Wildlife Justice Commission, the Wildlife Trust of India, and the World Oceans Council, with the most recent organisation to join being the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust of Malawi.

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About the author

John Scanlon AO is a seasoned leader in the fields of environment, governance and sustainable development, with a unique range of experience gained across multiple continents, disciplines and organisations. He has served in senior positions in the private sector, with government, international organisations, the United Nations, and not-for-profit organizations, and as chair or member of many boards and initiatives. This includes working with IUCN (Bonn), UNEP (Nairobi) and CITES (Geneva)

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