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Conservationists take aim at poachers

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Conservationists take aim at poachers

Newly-created commission will gather evidence to help dismantle organized wildlife crimes
From Africa Renewal: 
Baby elephants “play soccer” as they graze at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: AMO/Stephen Mudiari Kasabuli
Photo: AMO/Stephen Mudiari Kasabuli
Baby elephants “play soccer” as they graze at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: AMO/Stephen Mudiari Kasabuli

As the rate of animal poaching continues to rise, conservationists have begun calling for stronger laws and deterrents to wildlife crimes.

African governments and non-governmental organizations are starting to take wildlife crimes as seriously as other transnational crimes such as drug smuggling and human trafficking. In recent years countries have strengthened anti-poaching laws and stepped up prosecutions.

Conservation groups have begun backing new ways to deter poachers. The newly created Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC), for example, gathers evidence to disrupt and help dismantle transnational, organized wildlife crime. The WJC is based in The Hague, The Netherlands, near the International Criminal Court and several UN tribunals that try genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Commission’s intelligence unit has since 2015 been gathering information to create tactical, operational and strategic intelligence assessments in support of current investigations, as well as disseminating information to law enforcement agencies and other non-governmental organizations on wildlife criminals.

The WJC team of experts in law, criminology and wildlife conducts field investigations worldwide to identify the people behind the poaching, trafficking and trading of wildlife products. In what they call “Maps of Facts”—consisting of hundreds of pages—they list the names and whereabouts of high-profile perpetrators. They publish this information on social media, along with audio and video evidence and incisive intelligence analysis.

Poaching and illegal trade present real environmental dangers and ultimately undermine the rule of law by potentially fueling conflict.

Because it was not set up by an international treaty, the WJC cannot enforce laws itself or hand down binding verdicts. After an investigation, the commission starts a period of dialogue and diplomacy to increase awareness, put the topic on the political agenda and push for prosecutions. However, if national authorities are taking no action, the commission can hold public hearings before an accountability panel.

“I firmly believe that law enforcement can change the behaviour of people,” says Olivia Swaak-Goldman, the commission’s executive director.

Poaching is rampant because the probability of being caught is extremely low, Ms. Swaak-Goldman told Africa Renewal in an interview at her office in The Hague.

The WJC aims to encourage the prosecution of these crimes, increase risks for perpetrators and, in the long run, generate a deterrent effect.

Arrests and the disruption of wildlife smuggling networks in various African countries have resulted from this approach. However, challenges still remain. In recent years, the number of animals killed reached historic heights—a development with far-reaching consequences. For example, nearly 1,400 African rhinos were poached in 2015. In 2010 the number was about 400.

Poaching and illegal trade not only present real environmental dangers, but ultimately undermine the rule of law by potentially fueling conflict, reports the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its first World Wildlife Crime Report, published in May 2016.

“Poaching has damaged the wildlife population in Kenya, with fears that some species could be pushed into extinction,” Julius Kamau, executive director of the East African Wildlife Society, told Africa Renewal.

Historically, Kenya has treated poaching as a petty offence, but a law introduced in 2013 requires high minimum penalties for wildlife crimes, including imprisonment for the killing of endangered species.

“Penalties for wildlife crimes in Kenya are now the harshest in the world and even include life imprisonment in some cases,” explains Paula Kahumbu of the Kenyan conservationist action group, WildlifeDirect.

Since then the number of elephant deaths from poaching in the country has decreased by 80% and the number of rhino deaths from poaching by 90%. The decline can in part be attributed to the strengthening of the laws, Ms. Kahumbu wrote in an article for the Guardian, a British daily.

In its report, UNODC notes that gaps in legal enforcement are facilitating wildlife crimes. “Illegal trade could be reduced if each country were to prohibit, under national law, the possession of wildlife that was illegally harvested in, or illegally traded from, anywhere else in the world,” UNODC writes.

States and the international community are both increasingly recognizing the need for better laws and law enforcement.

The United Nations General Assembly in July 2015 adopted a resolution (69/314) intended to tackle illicit trafficking in wildlife. It urged member states “to take decisive steps at the national level to prevent, combat and eradicate the illegal trade in wildlife.”

Several African countries have already adopted new laws or increased penalties. Mozambique enacted a new conservation law in June 2014 that makes wildlife poaching a serious crime.

In Tanzania, the National and Transnational Serious Crimes Investigation Unit (NTSCIU), an elite task force, is increasingly called in to prosecute wildlife crimes. One of NTSCIU’s major successes was the arrest in August 2015 of a Chinese woman known as the “Ivory Queen,” one of Africa’s most notorious smugglers of ivory to Asia. She is said to have led a smuggling ring that killed animals in Africa and sold several millions of dollars’ worth of tusks to East Asia.

Conservationists say they can’t underscore enough the necessity of law. “Swifter prosecution with heavy penalties could play a significant role in helping deter wildlife criminals—especially if those near or at the top of the criminal hierarchy are caught,” says Richard Thomas of the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, a global non-governmental organization based in the UK.

And African countries are enacting and enforcing such laws. In March 2016, a Tanzanian court sentenced two Chinese men to 35 years in prison for smuggling ivory. A few months earlier it had sentenced two men to 20 years in jail for smuggling rhino horn.

In South Africa, 414 poachers were arrested between January and September 2016. This marked an increase in arrests from 317 for the whole of 2015, according to Edna Molewa, the minister of water and environmental affairs.

Heavier penalties aren’t a cure-all, though. “One of the major challenges of deterring poaching activities via convictions is weak evidence gathering, which has resulted in weak prosecution and lack of evidence or proof,” says Mr. Kamau, the Kenyan conservationist. “This means that many offenders have gone unpunished.”

In a move to address this issue, Kenya and South Africa have set up laboratories that collect DNA information in a database that links stolen ivory and game meat to specific animals. The DNA information can be used in court as watertight evidence. It can prove the link to a suspect, for example, through hairs at the crime scene or a knife with blood. Moreover, most animals appear to have been killed in few specific hotspots in Africa.

Sometimes suspects are never caught, their cases fail to come to trial or they receive penalties that are far too weak. This can be due to corruption, weak investigations or a lack of judicial appreciation of the seriousness of wildlife crime, according to Mr. Thomas of TRAFFIC.

There are cross-cultural challenges as well. If Asians are arrested, African investigators frequently struggle with interrogation due to language barriers. Mr. Thomas prescribes better collaboration between Asian and African authorities. For example, Asian countries could strategically station law enforcement personnel and let investigators call them in to support interrogators and get information from seized documents, laptops and cell phones.

Another possibility is for more countries to adopt an equivalent of the American Lacey Act, enabling them to prosecute their own citizens for wildlife crimes regardless of where the crimes were committed. “If arrested, nationals could be extradited and prosecuted in their home country—that would certainly be a game changer,” says Mr. Thomas.