Clamp Down on Cross-Border Trade Leads to Temporary Decline in Wildlife Trafficking

A pangolin rescued from poachers in South Africa      Photo: Denis Farrell, Associated Press

In the silver linings category, the COVID-19 pandemic’s shock to economies around the globe is also proving to be a disruption to illegal wildlife trafficking by transnational criminal networks, according to a new report from Wildlife Justice Commission, a non-profit organization that investigates and tracks these criminal activities and networks.  According to the Commission, their intelligence “shows that traffickers are currently experiencing a range of challenges in transporting products and accessing markets and customers,” but that this is no time to relax because these traffickers are good at finding the weak spots in any enforcement regime.  Illegal fishers are also being apprehended now as well.

Why This Matters:  Temporary blockages in the black market supply chain are not surprising, and the bad guys will find a way around them — too much money is at stake and these folks are rule-breakers by training.  What is also likely to happen is that with parks closed and resources diverted to fight COVID, criminal networks will exploit these new weaknesses in the enforcement system and poaching might actually increase in the medium term, and the report’s authors are aware of some criminal syndicates actively organizing to do it.   

Changing Dynamics In Illegal Wildlife Trade

According to the Commission, there is a decreasing demand for ivory among brokers in China, which they attribute in part to the ivory trade ban in China and declining wholesale prices for raw ivory on the black market — a trend since 2015.  But there are still stockpiles of ivory waiting to be moved across borders in Asia once an opportunity arises.  At the same time, the market for pangolin scales has been increasing since 2017 because their price is holding steady or increasing, according to the Commission’s sources, and they have seen an increasing number of wildlife brokers offering large quantities of pangolin scales for sale since 2019. An estimated 300 pangolins are poached every day on average. Likewise, Indonesia, the world’s biggest archipelago nation, has worked to increase its efforts to interdict illegal fishing because it costs their economy billions of dollars annually.  In recent months, Indonesian maritime patrols seized three Filipino and two Vietnamese flagged vessels in the North Natuna Sea and Sulawesi Sea in April, and in March they intercepted two illegal Vietnamese vessels, according to The Stimson Center, a national security think tank based here in the U.S.

China’s Wildlife Trade Ban Is Limited

Another complication is that China’s ban only targets food-related wildlife consumption and does not apply to other types of wildlife use such as traditional medicine or pets. China banned trade and consumption of wildlife “meat” after the government became aware that the COVID-19 pathogen may have spread from animals to humans in a wildlife market in Wuhan.  Other countries like Vietnam and Gabon have implemented similar bans since February when this one went into place.   It is unclear whether the policy banning consumption is having an impact on illegal trade, but experts believe it is unlikely to deter organized transnational wildlife trafficking operations that work on an industrial scale.  Sarah Stoner, a co-author of the Report said, “[t]here’s too much money to be made from these products, and there are too many people involved for this to have a significant long term impact,”

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