Wildlife Trafficking: A Global Security Threat

Wildlife trafficking, the illegal trade, smuggling, poaching, capture, or collection of endangered species, protected wildlife, derivatives, or products thereof, is an estimated $23 billion a year business; not only is this crime harming our planets wildlife populations, it assists in the proliferation of human trafficking, sanctions evasion, and the funding of insurgency groups. Because of its links to transnational crimes, it has risen to be one of the most lucrative. The World Bank estimates that, “an elephant is poached for its tusks about every 30 minutes, an African rhino for its horn every 8 hours, one in five fish is caught illegally, and in certain countries, particularly in Africa and South America, 50% to 90% of timber is harvested and traded illegally.” Rhino horn alone can be sold on the black market for approximately $65,000 per kilogram (Kg) (2.2 pounds), more than the price of gold, platinum, and cocaine per kilogram. 

Besides the previously mentioned, there are dozens of other threatened flora and fauna species that are trafficked at alarming and unsustainable rates. This should warrant more concern from the international community; not only is the nature of the illicit wildlife trade inhumane and often brutal, but has larger environmental concerns. Additionally, criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and even select nations gain revenue from illicit wildlife trafficking, since it is a low risk-high reward crime. Without a proper legal framework that includes laws, policies, enforcement, and sufficient funding this will not only cost the world species of flora and fauna vital to ecosystems, but will continue to be used as a front for human trafficking, sanction evasion, other transnational crimes, as well as becoming an increasing concern for national security. 

Human Trafficking 

Illicit wildlife trafficking does not solely revolve around the killing and harvesting of wild game; it involves a host of other crimes as well. In 2012, a South African lion breeder and safari guide Marnus Steyl, was charged with the illegal sale and shipment of rhino horns, lion bones, and other exotic animals to Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Further investigation led to the uncovering of a large criminal syndicate which used Xaysavang Import Export Co. Ltd. as a legal front for its activities. This company, and its affiliates, trafficked young Thai women into South Africa to act as trophy hunters and receive hunting permits. The women were forced to work in brothels and strip clubs while rhino hunts were being set up in their names. Puntitak Chunchom, a Thai national who was the syndicate’s man on the ground in South Africa, would wait for rhinos to be brought to a farm for hunting by Steyl’s farmhands. From there he would use the passports of the Thai prostitutes and submit trophy hunting permits in their names. This fraud scheme provided him an ever expanding list of permits while the same professional hunter would kill the rhinos. The prostitutes would then pose for a picture with the rhino carcass to show their presence on the hunt. Harvested materials were then shipped to Asia for large amounts of profit. Forensic investigator on the case, Paul O’Sullivan, estimated that the network was able to spend approximately $760,000 to run their operation, but were ultimately able to sell the materials for upwards of $7,000,000 on the black market. Since this case, Xaysavang has been linked to several large seizures of wildlife material including 220 Kg of elephant ivory and 18 Kg of rhino horns. The U.S. Department of State has even placed a $1 million dollar bounty for any information leading to the dismantling of the syndicate and the arrest of its kingpin, Vixay Keosavang. Keosavang, known as “Mr. Big” in Laos, has been the head of Xaysavang Import Export Co. Ltd. since its inception in 2008 and has never been caught, even though the network has been implicated in the trafficking of thousands of animals.

Government Involvement

Individual nation states participate in the lucrative trade as well, like North Korea, who in search of hard currency due to a plethora of international sanctions, has resorted to several illegal activities such as drug trafficking, currency counterfeiting, hacking operations, and wildlife trafficking, in order to fund their countries operations. According to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, there have been 29 cases of diplomats smuggling rhino horn in diplomatic pouches, a container with certain legal protections used for official correspondence between a diplomatic mission and its host nation, in the past three decades; 18 of these cases have been North Korean diplomats. In 2015, Pak Chol-jun, the political counsellor at the North Korean Pretoria embassy, was detained in Maputo, Mozambique with approximately $100,000 in cash and 4.5 Kg of rhino horn. Additionally, in 2016, two North Korean diplomats were separately detained at Bole International Airport in Ethiopia in transit to China. The first instance occurred on 24 September when Jon Kwang-chol was caught with 76 pieces of ivory while traveling on a North Korean diplomatic passport. The second occurred on October 16 when Kim Chang-su, believed to be the North Korean trade representative in Zimbabwe, was detained with two hundred ivory bangle bracelets in his possession. The men were released based on their diplomatic immunity. These instances represent only a small fraction of the suspected wildlife trade occurring within North Korean networks. Julian Rademeyer, the author of the above report, states that it is “virtually impossible to estimate the scale of North Korean trafficking, which only surfaces on the rare occasions when smugglers are caught or defectors give testimony.” 

China has also benefited from illegal wildlife trade as well. In 2020, Science Advances conducted a study tracking supposed “dark fleets”, ships operating without their automatic identification system, illegally fishing in North Korean waters. Sanctions were placed on North Korea (DPRK) by the U.N. Security Council in response to their ballistic missile program in 2017. Paragraph 9 of U.N. Resolution 2371 (2017) prohibited the DPRK from selling or transferring, directly or indirectly, any seafood to U.N. member states. North Korea, according to the U.N., transferred shipping rights to Chinese vessels; ultimately creating income for the DPRK by selling illegal fishing permits. U.N. Resolution 2397 paragraph 6 clarifies the sanction as also prohibiting the transfer of fishing rights to any member states. With advanced satellite technology the study “identified over 900 distinct illegal vessels in 2017 after sanctions began and over 700 in 2018, representing the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by a single distant-water fleet.” The target of these vessels was the Japanese Flying Squid, a food staple in the region that provides significant income to countries such as Japan and South Korea; the study found that “since 2003 squid catches have dropped by 80% in South Korean waters and 82% in those of Japan”. Between 2017 and 2018, the “dark fleet” vessels fished an estimated 164,000 metric tons, worth $440 million, of this species. Further complicating matters is the fact that with the more advanced Chinese vessels fishing in North Korean waters, natives of the peninsula who rely on the squid for their livelihood have been forced to travel into neighboring Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ) in order to fish, further violating maritime laws and increasing the risk of being involved in at sea emergencies. endangering themselves. The Chinese government is allowing the overfishing of this species by not enforcing U.N. resolutions which in turn is creating unsustainable numbers of squid. Without this vital resource, villagers that have relied on it for income are taking drastic measures and are ultimately putting themselves in danger.  

Terrorism and Insurgency Groups

Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) formerly operated out of Uganda and throughout central Africa. Emerging in the 1980’s, the LRA began abducting, mutilating, trafficking, and killing thousands of civilians throughout central Africa. Kony was eventually charged by the International Criminal Court in 2005 with 12 counts of crimes against humanity and 21 counts of war crimes. The LRA ceased to exist in 2017. While some remember the brutality of his reign, fewer are aware of how wildlife trafficking funded his operations. 

Members of his organization offer a glimpse at how valuable ivory was to Kony. Former radioman for Kony, Michael Onen, tells that one transmission between Kony and his former peace negotiator Vincent Otti showed Kony’s intention for harvesting ivory. Otti, having loved elephants, forbade killing them but, when Otti went to participate in peace talks with Uganda, Kony began killing them again. When Otti asked him why he would jeopardize the talks, he revealed that, “No, I want ivory for ammunition to keep fighting.” Marty Regan, of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations stated in an interview with National Geographic that, “Ivory operates as a savings account for Kony.” Kony was also reported to have said, It’s only the ivory that will make the LRA strong.” He was not wrong considering that a pound of ivory reportedly sells for $1,500 on the black market. With an average tusk weighing 250 pounds – total profit equals $375,000 for one tusk.

While the LRA has been practically nonexistent since 2017, other terrorist groups are using these very same methods to fund their own operations, even if indirectly.  Terrorist and insurgency groups in general have utilized several illicit markets to raise funds, including some that one would not expect from that group. The Brookings Institution lays out several groups known to participate in the drug trade:

“In the drug trade alone, groups as diverse as the Taliban in Afghanistan, Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru, FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and rightist paramilitaries in Colombia, to name just a few, have participated. Groups involved in illegal logging and mining include again the Taliban and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan, FARC and other leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries in Colombia, the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) in Sierra Leone, and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and many others.” 

The benefits from participating in illicit markets are well documented. Militant groups are able to generate large sums of money with minimal investment, which in turn enables them to pay their members better salaries, recruit new members, and procure more advanced weaponry and once  “their participation in an illicit economy solves the belligerents’ logistics and procurement needs, they become free to concentrate on high-value, high-impact targets,” reports Brookings. 

Legislation and International Cooperation Efforts

In recent years, the United States has introduced and passed several legislative actions targeting wildlife trade. The National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking was introduced in 2014 and was followed up by the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016. Subsequently, the U.S. Department of State set up the Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking and devised a three pronged approach to countering such trade; “strengthening law enforcement, reducing demand, and building international cooperation.” The international community has participated greatly as well, including the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Environmental Investigation Agency, and a plethora of non-governmental organizations (NGO). With all of the support from around the globe, CITES has been able to create a central database for seizures of all illicit wildlife. This has allowed governments and NGOs to track shipments of wildlife and inform them on how to craft legislation and policy to target specific countries that are experiencing high levels of illicit trade. In an effort to curb demand, CITES also instituted an international ban on the ivory trade in 1989. While this helped reduce demand, transnational trade has continued, especially in southeast Asia where many of the trafficked resources are considered medicinal or are considered delicacies. The United States instituted a national ban on ivory trade in 2016 followed by the UK, Singapore, and eventually China in 2017. However, while the demand for elephant ivory is decreasing, it is now evident that criminal syndicates, hermit countries, and even terrorists have shifted to the capture and sale of other species such as tigers, turtles, and pangolins. 


Park Rangers in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Policy Implications

Two outcomes must be achieved, the reduction in the illicit trade of flora and fauna species, and the curtailing of the sources of funding and criminal originations who proliferate this trade. As it stands now, the international community contributes an average of $260 million a year to tackle the issue – a small amount compared to the $29.9 billion spent on drug control in 2019 in the United States alone. More resources including but not limited to increased funding for conservation, continued law enforcement training, and investments in technology are necessary if these small countries, such as Mozambique, Cameroon, Kenya, the Central African Republic and Uganda, are going to defend their natural resources against such formidable criminal networks. According to the World Bank, “Combating illegal logging, fishing and wildlife trade is a governance issue that first and foremost requires high-level political commitment at the national and international levels.” 

First, countries known for source, transit or demand for trafficked wildlife need to strengthen their legislation and the enforcement thereof in order to increase the risk to criminals if they are caught. Many of the involved countries are slow to enact legislation to prosecute these crimes as transnational organized crime, and are not up to compliance in international wildlife trade. Some work has been done on this area already, but training prosecutors of smaller nations how to tackle these cases and cases of corruption in the system may assist in a more efficient legal battle; while larger nations may have more resources to take over some of the caseload, prosecutors from smaller nations will still need training to create a sustainable legal system that will stop the crime. Second, law enforcement in known source countries lack the knowledge and personnel to keep up with the trade. Some rangers may lack motivation to combat the trade since they are underfunded and severely out manned, but even if they have the motivation, they are not properly trained in investigations so cases cannot be created on solid evidence. There is “no proper evidence tracking and management systems in place, which is a danger as wildlife products that have been seized and removed from circulation in the illegal markets, can easily find their way back,” says the American Wildlife Foundation. While several NGOs assist law enforcement units on the ground, law enforcement coalitions should be set up to train at the organizational level in the short term so that proper investigation and subsequent prosecution can be attained. In the long term, countering wildlife trafficking should be part of any mandatory training at the police academies. Additionally, while establishment of Protected Areas (PAs) has been increasing throughout Africa and Asia, those lands are still not effectively managed. Because PAs are  designated areas with defined borders, they have the potential for legislation targeted to their area and specialized funding for the wildlife in those areas. While these PAs are not being used to their maximum potential now because of budget and management issues, there is the possibility of these areas becoming key to the fight on wildlife trafficking. These areas need to be considered “part of a national system with the legal, policy, governance, and financial mechanisms to support their effective management.” Once countries establish and fund the conservation of PA’s, technological advances need to be leveraged in order to protect the wildlife such as DNA analysis of trafficked animals to determine their origin so efforts can be targeted to high risk areas. Thermal imaging to patrol remote areas with challenging terrain and advanced communications technology so rangers can communicate without interference are other examples that would greatly increase the efficacy of tracking poachers.

Fortress International L.L.C. is a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business

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