News analysis

Seizing shipments alone will not stop wildlife and forest crime

UN, environment agencies want govts to use anti-corruption laws

Enforcers fighting a surge in environmental crime greased by the wheels of corruption need to go beyond simply seizing shipments to worldwide investigations using more technology and legal tools, experts say.

Shipments of illegal timber, hazardous waste, ivory and other items seized globally have spiralled, and environmental crime has moved up the policy agenda. But successful prosecutions are few and the trade continues unabated.

In South-east Asia, environmental crime accounts for 25 per cent of the total value of criminal activity, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates. But "if you go to any given jail in this region, you will probably find about 80 per cent of people are in jail for drug-related offences, and about zero per cent for environmental crime-related offences", says Mr Giovanni Broussard, the Bangkok-based regional coordinator of UNODC's programme on combating wildlife and forest crime.

Instead of relying on relatively weak environmental laws, enforcement experts and UNODC want governments to use tough anti-corruption laws to crack down on the illegal trade.

More vigilance at transhipment points has seen more seizures of contraband. But this is not enough, said experts at a UN-organised meeting in Bangkok on Jan 26-27.

An eagle owl confiscated from a transport security officer at the Wildlife Rescue Centre in suburban Manila on Feb 1. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"We have more and more seizures... but the trade keeps coming and coming," said Mr Justin Gosling, an independent consultant and former Interpol environmental crime officer, on the sidelines of the meeting, which gathered around 50 experts on environmental crime.

The UN estimates environmental crime is worth up to US$213 billion (S$299 billion) a year globally. It ranges from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing to the slaughter of rhinoceroses and elephants in Africa, plunder of timber in Laos and Myanmar, and illegal export and dumping of hazardous waste.

In 2013, the US State Department said wildlife trafficking in particular had "evolved from a conservation issue to an acute security threat".

Globally environmental crime is estimated by the UN to be worth up to US$213 billion (S$299 billion) a year. It ranges from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing to the slaughter of rhinoceroses and elephants in Africa, the plunder of timber in Laos and Myanmar, and the illegal export and dumping of hazardous waste.

Last October, Asean put trafficking of wildlife and timber on its list of transnational crimes regarded as threats. Just days ago, it launched in Jakarta a 500-page legal toolkit on fighting environmental crime.

South-east Asia is a particular hot spot: It is both a source of tropical timber and wildlife, and a transit point on the Africa-China route.

The trade is facilitated by endemic corruption. Last week Transparency International's annual corruption perception index rated Cambodia the worst in South-east Asia. At No. 150, the country was in the bottom fifth of 167 countries listed.

A September report by Cambodia Daily concluded that nearly one-third of forest cover lost in Cambodia in 2014 had disappeared from inside areas that are officially protected. Ranked just above Cambodia were Myanmar at 147 and Laos at 139.

Independent investigators in 2014 filmed Chinese businessmen as far afield as Zanzibar, off Tanzania, involved in smuggling ivory. The storied port is one of the main conduits for ivory from Tanzania, where the elephant population has plunged from 110,000 five years ago to 43,000 today.

"Port officials get about US$70 per kilo of ivory to turn away," says Mr Julian Newman, an investigator from the British-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The EIA learnt that the seizure by Customs authorities of one container in 20 of ivory was an acceptable cost of doing business for the syndicates in Zanzibar.

Myanmar and Laos ban the export of raw or round logs. Yet investigators from EIA and other agencies have photographed lorries laden with them moving across borders, with officials and militias along the route paid off.

Above: "Blood ivory" at a Sri Lankan Customs office on Jan 26 PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mr Newman showed journalists photos of a Chinese businessman in a small town on the Vietnam-China border who quoted US$2 a kg to get timber across the border - refundable if the shipment was seized. "The frustration is, very few seizures in Asia lead to effective prosecutions," he said.

"It is not only South-east Asia," Mr Broussard said.

In South Africa, 1,215 rhinos werepoached in 2014. A year later despite millions being pledged and spent by various organisations, the number came down by around 40.

"There is much more money being spent now than in the past, but... The illegal trade has not dramatically reduced," Mr Broussard told The Straits Times.

Above: A baby orangutan seized by Indonesian police in Pekanbaru on Nov 9. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

"Laws are inadequate. Penalties are too low... Penalties for corruption are higher than those

for environmental crime.

"Seizures are good news to some extent because they show that law enforcement and government institutions at least care. But that is not enough."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2016, with the headline 'Seizures alone will not stop wildlife and forest crime'. Print Edition | Subscribe