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Combating Illegal Wildlife Trade: Many Targets, But No Silver Bullets

Wednesday, November 8, 2017
John Hare-Grogg

John Hare-Grogg

Former Research Associate

Benjamin Solomon-Schwartz

Public Interest Law Fellow

Carl Bruch

Carl Bruch

Senior Attorney; Director, International Programs

International illegal wildlife trade (IWT) threatens global biodiversity, imperils certain charismatic species, and fuels organized crime. Wildlife trafficking is the world’s fourth most lucrative crime, after only the trafficking of drugs, humans, and arms. Approximately 350 million plants and animals are sold on the black market every year, with an estimated value of between US $7 billion and $23 billion.

Demand for exotic wildlife products in expanding economies (as well as in developed economies), the scarcity of sustainable livelihoods in source countries, and existing transnational criminal networks have all driven an increase in trafficking of certain species in the 21st century. For instance, the number of rhinos poached in South Africa each year rose from about 10 a decade ago to more than 1,000 today. The consequences for wildlife have been devastating. The African savanna elephant population declined approximately 30 percent between 2007 and 2014.

Fortunately, national governments, intergovernmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have recognized the need to address this threat. A 2016 World Bank Group analysis revealed that, since 2010, international donors collectively have contributed approximately $190 million per year to combat IWT in Africa and Asia.

The activities funded through these sources encompass a wide variety of interventions. Interventions in source countries include bolstering support for management of protected wildlife areas; strengthening law enforcement (including providing basic equipment and benefits that rangers often lack); building opportunities for local communities to benefit from conserved wildlife; and investing in alternative sustainable livelihoods for communities in order to reduce economic incentives to poach. Transit-oriented interventions typically involve strengthening the capacity of customs agents to detect and deter illegal shipments. Some demand reduction campaigns have enlisted celebrity advocates to dissuade people from buying trafficked wildlife wares.

African Elephant in Botswana (Sponchia / Pixabay)

One of the largest contributors to anti-IWT efforts has been the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The GEF is a global fund that provides financing and technical assistance to help countries implement several international environmental agreements, including the Convention on Biological Diversity. Yet, funding is limited—especially when considering the magnitude of the illegal wildlife trade.

To ensure that its available resources achieve impacts across the wildlife “supply chain” spanning source, transit, and demand countries, the GEF’s Independent Evaluation Office recently retained the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) to evaluate the design of GEF efforts to combat illegal international wildlife trade. GEF efforts to help countries address IWT have included dozens of biodiversity conservation projects and currently take the form of the Global Wildlife Program (GWP), which was launched in 2015 and is coordinated by the World Bank.

ELI started by examining the documentation underpinning the GWP and other relevant GEF biodiversity conservation projects. The GWP consists of country-specific projects in 19 African and Asian nations, following many of the intervention approaches discussed above—especially for source countries—and a global coordination project. The global coordination project assists the country-specific projects with monitoring and evaluation and facilitates knowledge exchange among these projects and other stakeholders.

The ELI team also examined how different institutions have been supporting efforts to end illegal wildlife trade. We interviewed key sources around the world, including experts familiar with (and sometimes involved in) the GWP, as well as officials at intergovernmental bodies, governmental institutions, and NGOs engaged in fighting illegal wildlife trade.

Overall, our evaluation concluded that the GWP is well-managed, uses available resources efficiently, and makes important contributions to global efforts to combat illegal trade in wildlife. Of note, we found widespread recognition for the World Bank’s role in coordinating learning and technical assistance on IWT—including among countries, NGOs, and other international bodies. Accordingly, we recommended not only continuing the GWP, but expanding it.

We found three particular areas that warranted further attention in future GEF programming on IWT. First, the GWP should expand to incorporate Latin American countries. Second, the GWP should do more to address trade in a wider range of species, especially related to the pet trade. (Currently, most projects are based on conservation of elephants, rhinos, big cats, and pangolins.) Third, the GWP should support more interventions in transit and demand countries, which to date have received less attention from the program than have source countries. Additionally, a dedicated IWT funding source within the GEF that complements the existing allocation method would allow the GEF to exert more influence over the design of GWP projects, helping to ensure that IWT receives the priority it warrants in all country-specific projects.

Follow Two Kenya Wildlife Service rangers are silhouetted by fire from burning ivory and rhino horn yesterday evening at Nairobi National Park. The message passed by the big burn is, 'If the ivory isn't on an animal, it's worthless. (Mwangi Kirubi)

The GEF should continue to muster political will to combat IWT. This undertaking is both demanding and important, since corruption and government inaction frequently allow IWT markets to flourish. One strategy has been to convene or participate in global gatherings, such as the 2014 London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, where world leaders make high-profile declarations. Although some observers dismiss such declarations as mere words, our conversations with experts revealed that by regularly putting leaders on the record committing to fight IWT, these activities help build and sustain political will. The GEF has also supported efforts within countries to build support for combating IWT. For example, it has supported the International Conservation Caucus Foundation in its efforts to build caucuses of parliamentarians committed to wildlife conservation.

No single organization or intervention approach can solve the problem of IWT. Progress on the issue requires cooperation between different entities leveraging a range of institutional capacities and technical strengths. It also requires coordination and knowledge-sharing—an area where the GEF has added substantial value. The situation on the ground is dire, but we are encouraged by the commitment to this cause that we see from the GEF and others. We remain optimistic that international cooperation and committed leadership can end illegal wildlife trade before it is too late.