Outmanned, outgunned, outwitted – can the world win against the wildlife traffickers?

There are calls for international action to combat wildlife trafficking but with 25,000 elephants killed each year will they survive the talking?

There are calls for international action to combat wildlife trafficking but with 25,000 elephants killed each year will they survive the talking?

The President of Gabon has called for the establishment of a United Nations Special Envoy on wildlife crime and a UN General Assembly resolution at a side meeting in New York yesterday.  The Gabon hosted the meeting together with Germany and participants included major names from international wildlife organisations.

Present at the meeting was CITES Secretary-General John E. Scanlon who joined with  Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in calling for more support and action from the international community.

In a press release from the CITES Secretariat the officials stated, “The nature of wildlife crime has also changed. Gunmen and flatbed trucks have been replaced by helicopters and potent automatic weapons. The animals in their sights have little chance in this gory pursuit for illicit profits. Behind the gun teams are sophisticated supply chains using modern technology, as well as bribes and corruption, to deliver animal parts to every corner of the earth.

Courageous, but underpaid park rangers are often outmanned, outgunned and outwitted in a deadly game of hide-and-seek with poachers. Ranger services have been retrained to spot illegal kills, but have had to call in the military to do their job.”

In many parts of the world the rangers do not have the support needed to combat professional poachers. This was highlighted dramatically a couple of weeks ago when two forest rangers were killed in Thailand. A forest patrol of 10 rangers had just 1 shotgun and 1 rifle between them. When they came up against 5 poachers armed with modern automatic weapons the outcome was inevitable. Due to that incident the Thai government has announced plans to arm and train all their forest rangers with modern weapons.

In Kaziranga National Park the Indian government has just announced that the parks forest rangers will be equipped with modern AK-47 assault rifles to help them combat increasingly well-arm poaching syndicates.

Slowly governments are waking up to how serious wildlife crime and trafficking is. Excluding timber products and marine products the illegal trade in wildlife has been estimated by the UNODC at between $8 and $10 billion a year – that’s a lot of motivation for wildlife criminals.

In a joint statement Scanlon and Fedotov explained, Understanding what needs protecting is a priority and has been one of the raisons d’être of Cites since 1973. The Convention regulates and monitors international trade in more than 35,000 wild species to ensure that this trade does not threaten their survival. Underpinning the fight against wildlife crime and Cites decisions is a commitment made in the UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime.

But for these conventions to be effective, countries must make wildlife crime a serious crime in their own legislation. And to win the fight, they must deploy the techniques used against illicit drugs such as undercover operations and “controlled deliveries” – where contraband is not seized, but tracked to its destination in order to catch the people involved.

Fedotov added, “Poachers and other criminals are driving elephants, rhinos, tigers and many other species to the verge of extinction, around the globe. These criminals are destroying local livelihoods, upsetting fragile ecosystems and hindering social and economic development. They are fuelling violence and corruption, and undermining the rule of law. We need to raise awareness of the devastation caused by the markets for ivory, rhino horn, bushmeat, exotic parrots and shark fins. We must make consumers aware that this crime is far from victimless

President Ali Bongo of Gabon called for the appointment of a UN special envoy on wildlife crime as well as a UN General Assembly resolution. His proposal was supported by UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, William Hague, and the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, as well as other representatives present such as Norwegian Environment Minister Bard Vegar Solhjell.

President Bongo said, “Illicit wildlife crime is no longer a simple environmental problem, it is a transnational crime and a threat to peace and security on our continent.”

He also called for international help in combatting the issue  “Africa cannot face all these challenges to peace and security alone,” Bongo declared. “Its efforts must receive greater support, because the destabilization of Africa will have implications for other regions.”

 Jan Eliasson, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations said, “Key species are being driven to extinction. The proceeds of illegal trade support transnational organized crime and terror organizations. Murder and violence go hand in hand with this despicable business. The illegal trade in wildlife and endangered species is linked to drug smugglers, gun runners and human trafficking. It is a threat to all three pillars of our Organization: human rights, peace and security, and development.

“Fragile and conflict-affected states are particularly vulnerable because they lack the means to adequately regulate the exploitation of natural resources and control borders. For example, the Lord’s Resistance Army is known to be engaged in the illegal ivory trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. The illicit gain it generates is sustaining conflict,”

Eliasson committed the full resources of the United Nations to help get the message out about the threat that wildlife trafficking has to peace and security. Both UNTV and UN Goodwill Ambassadors will be used to take the message out to communities.

Jim Leape, Director General of WWF International commented on the outcome of the meeting, “This is a step forward in the fight against wildlife crime and today countries have shown they are serious in the fight against this organised crime. Wildlife trafficking is now more organised, more lucrative, more widespread and more dangerous than ever before. It constitutes a threat to territorial integrity, security and represents an invasion as well as natural resources theft.

While there is increasing attention being given to wildlife trafficking action is still lagging behind. International politics is notoriously slow and cumbersome and many species may not have ability to withstand the slow processes.

There has been some notable bilateral successes the most recent one of which is the agreement between South Africa and Mozambique to allow South African rangers to pursue poachers cross-border into Mozambique but international action is still weak. In particular the developed nations are not really contributing as much as they should in the prevention of wildlife crime and poaching.

Will developed nations be prepared to put ‘boots on the ground’ in order to help nations protect wildlife and endangered species that are enjoyed and valued by citizens of all countries. It can not be fair to expect African nations who have major issues with even basic development to also have to fund the cost of wildlife rangers services.

Could the United Nations peacekeeping facility be used to provide additional manpower and support for wildlife ranger services? Those that followed the CITES meeting earlier this year would have raised a few eyebrows when the Secretariat said that was an option in conflict zones. In the Mali conflict for the first time UN Peacekeepers were given the mandate to actively intervene if a World Heritage Cultural Site was attacked, the first time that UN peacekeepers had been given that type of mandate. The CITES Secretariat said that protection of wildlife in a World Heritage Nature Site could be mandated in to orders within a conflict zone where peacekeepers were deployed.

The most obvious example of that would be in the DR Congo. Currently UN Peacekeepers stationed in the country are mandated to protect civilians. That could be expanded to protect the wildlife such as forest elephants and gorillas allowing troops to pursue and combat poaching gangs.

Would it be such a big move to allow UN peacekeepers into protecting wildlife in World Heritage Sites that were outside a conflict zone?

Using UN Peacekeepers would be the ideal way in which the international community could get involved in providing real help to combat poachers. This would be especially so if the soldiers had free movement to chase poachers across borders with the backing of a UN Resolution. Using the UN umbrella would also help to offset possible political issues of stationing foreign solders in other countries. It would be easier for South Africa, for example, to accept a UN battalion to help protect the Kruger National Park than a detachment under the US or Dutch flag.

There are also options for the UK to take bi-lateral action against poachers. Currently Britain sends 6 infantry battalions a year to Kenya for training. There must surely be the option for the British Army to work with the Kenya Wildlife Service in providing anti-poaching patrols.

 Seeing wildlife trafficking issues gaining ground in international conferences and discussion is great but agreements need to be put in place quickly and actions commenced quickly if the poaching is to be stopped.

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