International criminal syndicates have taken over the illegal trade in wildlife.
That warning was sounded yesterday at a United Nations-sponsored discussion marking the second annual World Wildlife Day at New York's Central Park Zoo.
“We need to treat wildlife crime as a serious crime [just like] trade in illicit narcotics,” said John Scanlon, the secretary general for CITES, the governing body which regulates international wildlife trade.
“Then we need to find out what is driving these people and how do we stop them?”
Traditionally, killing of wildlife species such as elephants for their ivory tusks or the poaching of rare animals has been considered a conservation problem. But according to Scanlon and other experts, sophisticated criminal cartels have been able to take advantage of scarce law enforcement in many emerging economies.
The session, held under the tagline: “Its time to get serious about Wildlife Crime,” reflected the increased attention paid by law enforcement to the issue.
As many as 100,000 elephants were killed in a three-year period from 2010 to 2012, according to a report from the National Academy of Sciences. Ivory from the tusks is sold to markets all over the world, including the U.S. and China.
CITES reported that 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2014, decimating the population.
Not only are wildlife populations quickly disappearing; the step-up in poaching has threatened the economic viability and survival of local communities, the experts said.
And although there hasn't yet been a full global report on the repercussions from wildlife trade, a 2013 United Nations study estimated that the crisis cost $213 billion in damages.
Speakers from all over the world have gathered in New York to discuss the issue, and a special UN General Assembly session was planned today with opening remarks from Chelsea Clinton.
Panelists, which included appearances from the ambassadors of Gabon, Thailand and Germany, spoke about the rapid rise of poaching and how the international community has been caught unawares by the scale of the criminality.
Nik Sekhran, a director of sustainable development for the United Nations Development Program, illustrated how quickly rhino poaching has spread in South Africa since 2007.
“We went from losing 13 rhinos a year to three a day,” he said. ” The country was completely overwhelmed by the scope of the problem and is struggling to keep up. It's the same everywhere. We need a concerted global effort.”
And concurrently said experts, criminal syndicates have joined the poaching rings, exacerbating the problem and making it harder for field rangers to capture and monitor the sophisticated criminals.
South Africa's rhino poaching provides one of the starker examples of organized criminal involvement. Over 1,000 rhinos were killed in 2013. The estimated value of rhino horns poached in 2014 has been placed as high as $192 million.
Last month, President Barack Obama announced a plan to combat wildlife crime that will involve American intelligence assisting in the international dragnet to break the syndicates. For the first time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for investigating these crimes, will send officers abroad to Thailand, Africa and Peru.
Similarly, speakers at the event, which included representatives from CITES, the Wildlife Conservation Fund, the State Department, and various branches of the United Nations , said they were encouraged by the consensus of the different groups to take an aggressive law enforcement approach to stopping the poaching.
It was, many panelists indicated, a step in the right direction.
The speakers agreed that law enforcement needed to employ the latest investigative techniques as well as new technology to capture and stop poachers.
“We can't use the tools of the 1980s to capture the criminals of today,” said Aldo Lale-Demoz, Deputy Executive Director of the UN office on Drugs and Crime, who has officers training law enforcement agencies around the world on investigative techniques.
“Hopefully next year, we'll be sitting here telling you a different story,” he said.
Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.