World Wildlife Day: Where are we in the Fight Against Wildlife Trafficking?

3 March 2023

Today is World Wildlife Day and the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Themis’ Illegal Wildlife Trade Toolkit has also just been shortlisted for the International Compliance Association (ICA) Awards’ ESG Initiative of the Year - so it seems like a good time to take stock of where we are in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade (IWT).


Global efforts to crack down on IWT - thought to be the world’s fourth most lucrative financial crime - have continued to progress, with an important, recent slew of legislative changes in some key source countries for wildlife trafficking. In February, for example, Peru became the first country in South America to legally declare IWT in scope of its Law Against Organized Crime. Wildlife trafficking is a pervasive problem in Peru, and South America more widely; according to Peru’s National Forestry and Wild Fauna Service (Serfor), circa 102,000 live wild animals have been seized in the country over the past two decades, and aquatic species are as at risk as terrestrial ones. For instance, 30 tonnes of shark parts were confiscated in the country in 2018 alone, with Peru among the top 15 countries exporting the most shark fins to China.

Like modern slavery and human trafficking, IWT is increasingly undertaken by serious organised crime gangs operating transnationally as part of a wider raft of illicit activity - and often intermingling goods. For example, drugs and weapons are concealed within hollowed out timber, which may be illegally logged, and smuggled together along the same routes. Indeed, looking at shark fin export data demonstrates the involvement of such criminal groups operating cross-border; 62% of the fins exported illegally by Peru for Asian markets are actually derived from Ecuador (which prohibits, in law, deliberate - rather than as incidental bycatch - shark fishing).

Enshrining in law the definition of IWT as an organised crime (as over 80 countries currently do) is an important step, enabling the investigation of the criminal organisations behind wildlife trafficking and the same legal frameworks and tools that are used to combat other transnational organised crimes. This can, for example, be done by lifting confidentiality on bank details, international collaboration and the use of investigative techniques like undercover agents, as well as giving law enforcement more time for preparatory investigations and pre-trial detentions. Those found guilty of IWT in Peru will also now receive inflated sentences (between 11 and 20 years in prison as opposed to a maximum of seven).


Such legislative progress is vital - both in deterring wildlife traffickers as well as catching and prosecuting them - but it’s also worth considering the darker repercussions of such efforts.

In December 2022, for example, it was reported that the deepening global restrictions on elephant ivory trafficking - which are, of course, to be lauded - have led to a devastating increase in the illegal trade of hippopotamus teeth. Hippo teeth can be used for decorative carvings, just as elephant ivory can - and are cheaper and easier to obtain than elephant tusks.

This pattern is evident from as far back as 1989 (when a worldwide ban on trade in elephant ivory was first agreed), only intensifying as more governments around the world have brought in supplementary measures to support and tighten the ban. Indeed, the trend was even observable within one month of the UK announcing its near-total ban on the trade in elephant ivory in June 2022, with the charity Born Free finding an increase in hippo ivory on three widely used online marketplaces in the weeks that followed.

Given that hippos are already listed as "vulnerable to extinction" - the species has a low birth rate, with individuals producing just one offspring every other year - this increase in illegal trade could render their numbers critical. Even in 2016, a study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that the worldwide population of the common hippo had plummeted by 30% since 1994.

As such, ten countries in West and Central Africa are seeking a worldwide ban on the trade in hippo teeth, citing strong evidence of the co-mingling of legal and illegal hippo ivory, which comprises the so-called ‘grey market’ where criminals can blend contraband and licit activity. Hippo body parts can still be traded internationally with an export permit under CITES. Circa 770,000kg of hippo teeth were legally traded between 1975 (when CITES records began) and 2017, with the size of the illegal trade unknown - although a report by the European Commission states that hippo teeth were among the mammalian body parts seized most frequently by the EU in 2020.

The plight of the hippo highlights the importance of understanding that IWT legislation and regulation can sometimes have unintended and unforeseen consequences for other species, as criminals shift their focus to ‘less risky’ prospects - and of finding ways to mitigate or compensate for such effects. It also demonstrates how vital it is to keep abreast of the techniques used by criminals engaging in IWT.


It’s worth recognising the incredible ‘on the ground’ efforts of those on the trail of wildlife traffickers - and the additional tools they have in their arsenal beyond the weight of the law.

In May 2022, for example, South Africa’s Wildlife Forensic Academy opened, treating the killing of an animal for IWT purposes as a crime which can be forensically investigated in much the same way as the murder of a human can. The Academy trains students in how to investigate and collect evidence from simulated crime scenes, using CSI techniques on stuffed life-size animals, undertake chemical laboratory analysis and present evidence at a trial, allowing them to get a feel for being cross-examined in a courtroom. Such techniques are fundamental to the prosecution and conviction of wildlife traffickers given that many poaching crimes happen in remote areas without witnesses. Forensic evidence provides the backbone of a case and of the 451 reported cases of rhino killings in South Africa in 2021, for example, just 38 cases made it to court - either because no suspect was identified or due to a lack of usable evidence.

People are also working on a volunteer basis to help bring wildlife traffickers to justice. As part of the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online - run by the WWF, TRAFFIC and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), in tandem with a number of tech companies - volunteer ‘cyber-spotters’, for example, and trained to recognise red flag words and images on social media platforms to help spot potential illegal activity, which they then flag and is fed up the chain to relevant law enforcement. Established in 2018, the coalition had expanded to almost 50 companies with international operations - including Meta, TikTok, Alibaba, Baidu and Lazada - by October 2022 and has had huge success. In Singapore alone, for example, over 325 volunteers have been trained by the WWF as part of its cyber-spotter programme under the coalition, flagging in excess of 14,500 illegal wildlife trade listings.

Even more promising, Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly deployed to assist such efforts to combat IWT. Researchers at Helsinki University’s Helsinki Lab of Interdisciplinary Conservation Science, for example, have developed a machine learning algorithm that identifies the content and the context of images on social media platforms, flagging posts that might relate to IWT. Key to this machine vision model is the distinction between images of a captive versus non-captive animal - so that it can differentiate between an animal being displayed in a small box, cage or room, for instance, and one captured in photo by a tourist in a national park. The automation of this identification step enables law enforcement to cover far greater ground more efficiently than if a human were combing through social media images in the same manner.

It’s easy to feel defeated by the scale and extent of IWT, but the combination of AI and human efforts to tackle this crime - from the legislative level right through to education and volunteer activity - gives cause for hope: whatever new tricks, methodologies and techniques criminals employ, there’s just as much innovation and motivation to bring them to justice. Let’s keep on fighting that good fight.

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