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The role of public-private partnerships in combating illegal wildlife trade
Monday, June 29, 2020

In this article, Bruce Zagaris, Partner at Berliner Corcoran & Rowe and Fellow of the International Academy of Financial Crime Litigators, explores the role of public-private partnerships in tackling illegal wildlife trade (IWT).

This is the second article in our short series of perspectives on IWT and financial crime, in collaboration with the Basel Institute on Governance

How a coordinated, multidisciplinary response to IWT is both possible and essential

Non-commercial public-private partnerships can play important roles in combating illegal wildlife trade (IWT). Through these types of collaborations, the financial industry can help to spot and prevent suspicious transactions involving the illicit trade and help with tracing, freezing and forfeiting assets, as well as helping investigate and prosecute the traffickers. The transport industry can help spot and prevent the transportation of illicit cargo. When there is evidence that there is suspicious cargo already being transported, they can alert authorities. They can also provide intelligence to law enforcement about suspicious trends.

Many global financial and transport firms are already doing this as part of their commitments to stopping IWT as members of the United for Wildlife Financial and Transport Taskforces, a form of public-private partnership under The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. New technologies are critical to achieving effective solutions to conservation challenges, from location-tracking to information-sharing. United for Wildlife is already piloting and incubating some of these.

Plugging gaps in enforcement

Another important role that public-private partnerships are playing is helping with enforcement, including criminal investigation, prosecution, and forfeiture. While Article VIII of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) requires signatories to penalize violations and to seize and return items to the country of origin, implementation is weak. CITES lacks its own police force or enforcement officials. Both source and demand countries have been found wanting in their IWT enforcement efforts. The former typically lack capacity and the latter political will. It remains to be seen whether COVID-19 will have lasting change on these two challenges. 

This means that when they try to cope with illegal wildlife trade, most domestic law enforcement regimes have directed their efforts at low-level criminal activity, involving individuals acting in isolation rather than targeting the complex and organized criminal enterprises.

When they trace smaller, lower-level crime, a reactive law enforcement system may be sufficient. Investigators wait for reports of crime to occur and then they contact the prosecutor. However, to address more complex, pervasive, and organized criminal activity, the law enforcement community must act proactively. Park rangers, environmental, and other key officials (tax and customs authorities, Financial Intelligence Units, and so forth) must actively engage with investigators and prosecutors to discover who is engaged in IWT, how they are doing it, and where the offenders are sending the proceeds of their crime.

A network to defeat a network

A coordinated, multidisciplinary response addressing the many features of illegal wildlife trade will require strong political will. It will require high-level officials to support a shift in policy, priorities, and resources towards those who can prevent corruption from derailing their efforts.

And it will require strong public-private collaboration involving private companies, NGOs, trade associations, the media, governments, and international organizations. All these must collaborate more actively in combating IWT to preserve not just wildlife but – as the covid-19 outbreak has demonstrated – the human species. Together they can develop an international network against illegal wildlife trade that is much more effective than the current formal international law. International networks benefit all participating parties because networks are informal, enabling them to efficiently achieve results.

Another benefit for the private sector is reputational.  Allocating resources to combating IWT helps polish the brand of the companies participating in the initiative.

To the extent that national governments participate, their capacity to stop or limit IWT improves. In turn, the ability to sustain their wildlife enables them to preserve their natural resources and attract the high-end tourism on which their economies to a large extent depend.

To view the alternative perspective on this topic by Juhani Grossmann, IWT Team Leader at the Basel Institute on Governance, see the Basel Institute website or download the PDF