The illegal trade in wildlife and timber has escalated rapidly and globally, and now encompasses a wide range of flora and fauna across all continents, including terrestrial and aquatic animals, forests and other plants and their products.

Overall global environmental crime, which is worth up to US $213 billion a year, is helping finance criminal, militia and terrorist groups, threatening the security and sustainable development of many nations.

The consequences of environmental crime in general and the illegal trade in wildlife in particular span environmental, social, economic and security impacts, affecting the resource base for local communities, and resulting in the theft of sovereign natural capital.

Beyond immediate impacts on the environment, the illegal trade in natural resources is depriving developing economies of billions of dollars in lost revenues just to stuff the pockets of criminals. Sustainable development, livelihoods, good governance and the rule of law are all being threatened, as significant sums of money are flowing to militias and terrorist groups.

The illegal trade in wildlife is recognized as the fourth most lucrative global crime, closely behind illegal drugs, trafficking in humans and arms. It is estimated that US $48-153 billion in resources is lost through illegal trade in wildlife globally each year, which is almost equivalent to the global official development assistance (ODA) of US $135 billion per year.

Illegal logging alone accounts for an estimated US $30-100 billion in global annual loss of resources, representing 10-30 per cent of the total global timber trade.

A rapid response assessment, launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) during the first United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in June 2014, reveals that, while there is growing awareness, the responses to date in terms of impact have not been commensurate with the scale and growth of the threat to wildlife and the environment. The scale of wildlife and forest crime, as a threat to national economies, calls for much wider interventions and policy action.

The report, entitled The Environmental Crime Crisis, finds that one terrorist group operating in East Africa is estimated to make between US $38 and US $56 million per year from the illegal trade in charcoal. In total, militia and terrorist groups in and around African nations with on-going conflicts may earn between US $111 to US $289 million annually from their involvement in, and taxing of, the illegal or unregulated charcoal trade.

Other groups that benefit from the illegal trade in wildlife products are estimated to earn between US $4 and US $12.2 million each year from elephant ivory in the Central Africa sub-region, driving a significant reduction in elephant populations across the continent.

Combined estimates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), UNEP and the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) place the monetary value of all environmental crime, which includes logging, poaching and trafficking of a wide range of animals, illegal fisheries, illegal mining and dumping of toxic waste, at between US $70 and US $213 billion each year.

While the report points to an increased awareness of and response to the growing global threat, it also calls for further concerted action and issues recommendations aimed at strengthening action against the organized criminal networks profiting from the trade.

Building upon the initiatives that took place in 2013—from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Conference of the Parties in Bangkok in March, to the Botswana Elephant Summit and the French Government-hosted Summit for Peace and Security in Africa in December, to the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 21/34 and 21/36 and the destruction of many stockpiles of ivory around the world—it is imperative that 2014 becomes a year of concrete and decisive action.

Across Africa, one elephant is killed every 20 minutes. More elephants are poached than die of natural causes, with up to 90 per cent of elephant mortality in Central Africa due to poaching.

Rhino poaching increased by 7,000 per cent between 2007 and 2013 in South Africa, home to over 80 per cent of Africa’s rhinos, with around 1000 rhinos poached in the country in 2013 alone. With a market value of US $65,000 per kilogram, rhino horn prices are now higher than gold. In South and Central America, across Asia and elsewhere, the illegal trade in birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and plants, propelled to satisfy domestic and international markets, is taking its toll on biodiversity, resulting in the loss of natural capital, while providing financial gain for organized criminal networks. The threats and the challenges posed by the increasing involvement of organized crime in the illegal trade in wildlife, and the negative implications for governance, rule of law and security are of particular concern to the international community.

Despite increases in the response, the pace, level of sophistication, and globalized nature of the illegal trade in wildlife is currently beyond the capacity of many countries and individual organizations to address. At the international level, a comprehensive and coordinated United Nations system-wide response to support holistic national approaches to effectively address the issue is a critical component of the global response.

As a landmark event and significant indication of commitment to maintaining international momentum to address environmental crime, UNEA adopted the first ever United Nations resolution focused on illegal trade in wildlife. Member States recognized with deep concern the increasing scale of illegal trade in wildlife and its products, including timber, and its adverse economic, social, security and environmental impacts, and agreed upon a resolution that spoke to the need to implement existing commitments, ensure synergies, cooperation and coordination of efforts to address illegal wildlife trade. The resolution called upon the United Nations General Assembly to consider the issue at its 69th session and to provide a strong mandate for UNEP work in the area going forward.

The conservation and sustainable use of wildlife and timber resources are central to UNEP’s historic, current and future programme of work. Its collaborative action to strengthen the response to the illegal trade in wildlife spans a diverse project portfolio, building on existing and ongoing interventions and initiatives, from raising public awareness and demand reduction to capacity-building and supporting the implementation of CITES.

However, in order to effectively combat environmental crime, especially the illegal trade in wildlife, fast-track measures must be implemented globally, taking into account the diverse socio-economic, legal and market dynamics across range, transit and consumer States.

Such measures will vary from strengthening law enforcement, building adequate human and financial capacity, raising public awareness, and fighting corruption, to supporting national legislation and the overriding need to curb demand for wildlife products that are illegally sourced or unsustainably harvested.

In addition to short-term measures, longer-term considerations need to be given to natural resource management and sustainable economic development, based upon sovereign priorities and choices. Implementing nationally and internationally-agreed biodiversity strategies and targets and other relevant existing commitments must be at the heart of such action.