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How do you cut the head off the snake of the illegal wildlife trade?
Tuesday, June 30, 2020

In this article, Keith Oliver, Head of International at Peters & Peters Solicitors LLP together with his colleague Amalia Neenan, Legal Researcher, explore the role of asset recovery in combating wildlife trafficking. Keith Oliver is a Founding Fellow of the International Academy of Financial Crime Litigators. 

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

How do you cut the head off the snake of the illegal wildlife trade?

Cast your minds back to 2018. “Corona” was still just the name of a moderately alcoholic beer, and London was still a vibrant, international hub, without a lockdown in sight. Back then, the capital was playing host to the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, which was aimed at finding ways to curtail criminality and beef up the prosecution of wildlife traffickers, poachers and other interlinked offenders, by bringing together key global players and offering them a platform to discuss meaningful change. A good start, seeing as the illegal trade of wildlife (IWT) is the world’s fourth largest criminal industry, which is intertwined with organised crime rings dealing in the drug and arms trades as well.

However, two years on, and despite efforts to tackle this global problem, not nearly enough has been done to make a meaningful dent in what is estimated to be a $23-billion-a-year industry. And now look where we are. From the many theories out there, whether it be the infamous (and debunked) “bat-soup” headline, or the slightly more reasoned suggestion of trafficked pangolins, Covid-19 (as a zoonotic disease) made the jump to humans after incubating in animals as transitional hosts beforehand.

It seems as if now the world is starting to wake up. More efficient measures must be put in place to curtail the trafficking and mistreatment of animals. This international problem needs an international response but getting multi-jurisdictional criminal agencies to work together is no mean feat. Instead, a more effective and speedier reaction may be to utilise asset tracing and recovery strategies.

In 2017, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime published a report on Enhancing the Detection, Investigation and Disruption of Illicit Financial Flows from Wildlife. It discussed the underutilisation of asset recovery in this arena, in the same way as we would utilise the model as a means to disrupt any other criminal network. The report advocates that asset forfeiture is a powerful tool to adjust the risk/reward equation of wildlife crime, by taking away the expected rewards of crime, and sending a message to criminals that this is not a high-profit activity. It also reduces the risk of criminal proceeds being re-invested in further criminal activities.” However, in a 2018 document published by the Royal United Services Institute, it turns out that the majority of IWT cases are focused on conviction rates rather than stamping out the monetary appeal of the enterprise.

IWT is rampant amongst some of the poorest nations. However, by following the money, assets recovered and seized as the proceeds of this criminality could be repatriated and used to fund trafficking curtailment projects or enforcement efforts. One of the biggest problems that has hindered the effective pursuit of these types of criminals is the apparent apathy towards the cause, coupled with a lack of financial backing for vital legal ventures aimed at bringing offenders to justice. Asset recovery in this sense could open up a wealth of financial avenues to make meaningful inroads, piggybacking on the surge in public outcry post-pandemic.

The only downside? Information coordination. Assets can be easily bounced across borders in the blink of an eye, and so international cooperation and knowledge sharing is paramount. What could be the problem there!

In the meantime, financial institutions need to “stay alert” (to borrow the UK Prime Minister’s phrase du jour in light of the country’s lockdown) to suspicious transactions, working with governmental agencies to track down illicit fund-streams. This is a key priority of the next EU Directive on Anti-Money Laundering (6AMLD) due to come into force from December 2020, where IWT is set to be a predicate offence. Banks, therefore, need to ramp up their Know Your Customer checks to take into account wildlife crime.

Unless and until the financial allure of IWT is dampened, there is no real incentive to disengage with this criminal activity. Money talks. Isn’t it time international bodies engaged in a conversation using the universal language of finance? To use a potentially ironic analogy (given the circumstances), the only way to “cut the head off the snake” as it were, is to re-enforce efforts to track, trace, and recover assets created by IWT.

To view the alternative perspective on this topic by Gretta Fenner, Managing Director at the Basel Institute on Governance, see the Basel Institute website or download the PDF