Wildlife Trafficking Takes Center Stage in London

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Photo: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

By John Calvelli
October 11, 2018

[Note: this is the fourth and final piece in a series of blogs by WCS staff published during the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference: London 2018, which runs October 11–12]

World leaders are gathering this week in London, joined by high-level experts in criminal trafficking, law enforcement, and trade. But the topic is not weapons or narcotics or even human trafficking, though it’s equally serious: wildlife crime.

While wildlife trafficking has historically been treated as a lesser evil than those other crimes, its negative impacts on fragile communities are often just as severe and the organized criminals who engage in it no less ruthless. The toll on endangered and threatened wildlife populations is obvious, but less obvious is the way it engenders corruption in governments and destabilizes institutions.

Where wildlife trafficking differs from those other crimes, often times, is in the consequences for perpetrators. Justice systems around the world — both in countries that serve as the source of illegal wildlife goods and in destination counties — have historically failed to emphasize law enforcement of wildlife crime.

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Photo: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

Consequently, they did not put the full force of their justice system behind the effort. Many times, the punishment received by wildlife trafficking kingpins amounted to a proverbial slap on the wrist. Unfortunately a small penalty serves as almost no deterrent against others engaging in this crime. The result is more species headed toward extinction.

In London, wildlife conservation experts are speaking with law enforcement agencies and government officials to send a different message: wildlife crime is serious crime, and it should be treated as such.

One of the clear objectives of stopping illegal wildlife trade is closing down the markets for illicit goods. In the case of elephants, poached ivory is trafficked from Africa to consumer markets in Asia, Europe and North America. The demand stemming from those regions is a major driver of this illicit trade that has led to elephants being killed at rates up to every fifteen minutes.

As research has shown, in order to protect endangered wildlife, shutting down the markets for these goods is critical to shutting down the trafficking and poaching.

If we are ultimately going to be successful in bringing an end to the illegal wildlife trade, the issue needs to be dealt with at both the global and local level. Here in the United States, WCS joined a diverse coalition of hundreds of zoos, aquariums, and other partners in the 96 Elephants campaign, which pushed the U.S. government to enact a strong federal ban on ivory trade.

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In August 2017, state and federal authorities destroyed nearly 2 tons of confiscated ivory — valued at approximately US$8 million — in New York’s Central Park. Photo: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

We were proud to stand with state and federal authorities as we destroyed nearly 2 tons of confiscated ivory — with a street value of approximately US$8 million — in New York’s Central Park in an effort to raise awareness while showcasing the truly global nature of this crime.

The campaign was also instrumental in the passage of several state ivory bans, including in New York, New Jersey, California and Hawaii. Together, advocates working with 96 Elephants sent more than one million messages calling for the protection of elephants.

That success was followed by the truly groundbreaking announcement that China would phase out its ivory ban. But there are still large ivory markets that remain legal, perhaps most notably the European Union.

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John Calvelli joins Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. in September 2016 to announce the largest seizure of illegal ivory in New York state history. Photo: John Delaney/WCS.

The United Kingdom, hosting this week’s conference, is poised to be the next major domino to fall. In April, the UK announced its intention to implement an exceptionally strong ban on commercial sales, imports, and exports of ivory with only narrowly defined exemptions and including a tight compliance procedure. Now, we wait for the UK Parliament to pass primary legislation to implement the measures.

The conference this week could spur the European Union to act as well. The EU launched a consultation on an ivory ban last year, and the situation for elephants has only become more dire. My hope is that the EU government will take note of the work being done at the London conference, as well as the strong ban going into place in the UK, and implement a strong ban of its own. This will make a real difference in the fight against trafficking.

As wildlife trade experts come together this week with global leaders, they have a chance to alter the fate of elephants and other endangered wildlife threatened by trafficking. The world will be watching.

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John Calvelli is Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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