The link between Corruption and Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

24 March 2021 – by Anne Aurore Bertrand, Wildlife Justice Commission

During the recent 14th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Kyoto, UNODC organized a high-level special event investigating the role of corruption as a driver of wildlife crime. “The Nature of Corruption: discussing corruption in connection to wildlife,  forest, and fishery crimes” brought together high-level representatives from States, nonprofit organisations and eminent experts. The special event painted a clear picture of how crucial addressing corruption is in the efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade (IWT). 

Corruption occurs at every level of the wildlife trafficking supply chain, as pointed out by UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly at the outset of the event. Corruption is used to facilitate poaching, obtain falsified CITES permits (i.e. fake documents used for trade under the framework of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and ensure that contraband is moving easily through customs.  Corruption also hinders investigations and prosecutions of these cases. It is, therefore, one of the key drivers enabling the illegal transnational trade in protected wildlife and its devastating impact. 

The nexus between corruption and wildlife crime has been recognized in several key instruments at the International level from the UN General Assembly to CITES and resolution 8/12 of the 2019 UNCAC Conference of States Parties. 

Yet, wildlife trafficking remains a major problem. This link was once more recognized as essential in the Kyoto Declaration, calling for “effective measures and international instruments that address corruption and other forms of organized crimes such as money laundering linked to wildlife crimes and wildlife trafficking”. However, IWT continues to have industrial proportions and further action is required.  

“Operation Dragon”

Documenting and understanding the problem is a first step in this direction. The Wildlife Justice  Commission conducts intelligence-driven investigations to identify, disrupt and help dismantle the transnational criminal networks dealing in wildlife. Through its work, it witnesses how corruption facilitates this trade. During Operation Dragon, the WJC investigated the trafficking of turtles and tortoises across 5 States in Asia and Southeast Asia. 

The investigation exposed the corruption of officials at strategic airports and transport hubs across these countries, ensuring the guaranteed access to safely smuggle wildlife without the risk of detection. Known as ‘settings’, such access is vital for the networks to operate. In many cases, the cost of doing business with the trafficker included the cost of corrupting a local official. The Wildlife Justice Commission was able to document which ports were reported to be ‘easier’ to move products through. It also documented how every trafficker it engaged with spoke of corruption aiding and abetting their criminality.  

Looking forward, in June 2021 the United Nations General Assembly Special Session against Corruption will take place. In its written observations, the UNCAC Coalition stressed the importance of recognizing the significant interlinkages between corruption and environmental crimes. The UNGASS against corruption should be used as a starting point for States to work out further concrete actions that could benefit the fight against IWT. Initiatives requesting the transparency of beneficial ownership, strengthening anti-corruption mechanisms and protecting whistleblowers will support the efforts of both the anti-corruption community and those combatting wildlife crimes.