Illegal wildlife trade’s ‘dirty money’ targeted by big banks

  • Leading global banks and financial institutions have pledged their commitment to a financial task force to uncover laundering of profits derived from the illegal wildlife trade.
  • Alongside the task force, there are also calls for a greater focus on the role corruption plays in facilitating the poaching of fauna and flora.
  • There have also been warnings that efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade should not focus too heavily on large, charismatic mammals like elephants and rhinos.

LONDON — A broad alliance of 30 global banks and financial institutions have pledged to stop wildlife trafficking by pressuring the pocketbooks of criminal syndicates. Tracking the flow of “dirty money” and tackling corruption emerged as the missing elements in reducing the soaring illegal wildlife trade at a major conference last week in London.

Under the moniker of the Wildlife Financial Taskforce, members of the United for Wildlife-backed coalition have pledged to not “Knowingly facilitate or tolerate financial flows that are derived from the illegal wildlife trade and associated corruption.”

Members of the group, which complements one for the transportation sector set up in 2016, include Bank of America Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan, Standard Chartered, HSBC and RBS.

“We want to take the fight to the traffickers, by using the tools and experience the financial sector has learned from combating other devastating crimes, such as human trafficking and terrorist financing,” said David Fein, group general counsel of Standard Chartered.

The British government is also making $4.6 million available to assist the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to uncover illegally laundered funds in African countries such as Botswana, Côte D’Ivoire, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Its representative at the London conference made it clear that Britain’s focus is assisting, not leading.

“The U.K. is funding programs committed to helping law enforcement authorities in African countries to trace dirty money back to the criminal syndicates behind the dreadful illegal trade in animals and animal parts,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.

Estimates of the scale of the illegal wildlife trade vary wildly, from $9 billion to $30 billon annually, but the monetary value of all environmental crime and trafficking, when illegal logging and fishing are included, can go up to $70 billion to $213 billion.

Officials intercept illegal timber on a Yapacani-San Carlos highway. Image by ABT.

Tracing funds laundered from illegal wildlife trade profits is not a new concept. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British-based think tank, published a paper in late 2017 calling for a systematic approach in financially choking the actors and entities behind wildlife crime.

“Where wildlife crime is concerned, financial investigation is not employed on anything approaching a systematic basis,” the paper said. It warned that until there was a “significant financial crime-related element to undermine perpetrators’ profit-seeking motivation, this low-risk, high-reward crime will continue to thrive largely unimpeded.”

RUSI research analyst Alexandria Reid said it was vital that those involved in tackling wildlife crime — from people on the ground in wildlife management to financial intelligence units (FIUs) — share information.

“There are a lot of barriers between these two worlds,” Reid said in an interview. “You might have a parks and wildlife authority which doesn’t realize it has a reason to talk to an FIU or even that it can.”

Another research document released just before the conference last week looked at how corruption has facilitated wildlife crime in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Published by the OECD, the paper claims a lackluster focus from law enforcement, wildlife management authorities and wildlife NGOs when it comes to corruption as a driver of wildlife crime. “Where seizures take place, authorities often do not investigate the corrupt officials who enabled the supply stream at earlier points in the trafficking chain,” the OECD paper said.

This rescued pangopup was lucky. It escaped the near certain death that would have awaited it along the 29 known global pangolin trafficking routes. Image courtesy of the Tikki Hywood Foundation, Zimbabwe.

Faith Doherty, head of the forest team for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said her organization had demonstrated links between corruption and illegal logging in Southeast Asia. Lessons learned in this sector could be applied to tackling the illegal wildlife trade in animal products, Doherty said.

“You have to look at the system and what’s driving corruption,” Doherty said in an interview. “Is it poverty or is it fear? It could just be because you get more money by giving someone a permit [for logging]. It’s not one thing. If there is corruption at the top, the rot really sets in, but it’s much easier for governments to go for the smaller people lower down the ladder.”

Doherty said the EIA had achieved success working on the ground in places such as Indonesia over many years. She cited a case where the group helped break a multimillion-dollar illegal merbau hardwood trade in Indonesia.

“We were able to give Indonesian authorities information on how money laundering worked,” she said. “There was a lot of political will gained from years of Indonesia taking on illegal logging, and as a result, they found a policeman in Papua with $100 million in his bank account.”

A briefing note published this year by the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade points to how combating efforts could be improved. Specifically, it notes that fish, timber and plants are all trafficked in much greater volumes than higher-profile species such as elephants or rhinos. It warns of an “over-emphasis on militarised and enforcement-first approaches [that] risks eroding trust between local people and conservation staff.”

One of the program’s researchers, Diogo Verissimo, said it was simpler for governments to demonstrate action by putting money into law enforcement.

A forestry department ground inspection team checks the timber to be exported and monitors con-tainer loading at the site before sealing the container. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.
A forestry department ground inspection team in Myanmar checks the timber to be exported and monitors container loading. Photo by Ann Wang for Mongabay.

“If you are talking about demand reduction, what do you say?” Verissimo said in an interview. “How much money you’ve put in, how many celebrities are involved? It’s much easier to say we have now armed this many more rangers or provided this equipment. These things are much more visible.”

Paul De Ornellas, the Africa program manager at the Zoological Society of London, said without the political will to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, nothing would happen.

“The fact that it links to so many other problems such as the rule of law, corruption and other illegal trades means it should remain an issue for governments,” De Ornellas said.

The London conference was the fourth major event to focus on the illegal wildlife trade in the past four years, following those Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2016; Kasane, Botswana, in 2015; and London in 2014.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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