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Yet, despite the tremendous amount of resources being poured into conservation, global wildlife populations remain under siege and the illegal wildlife trade flourishes. We are losing species and habitat on almost every front.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its first-ever World Wildlife Crime Report. The report finds, among other things, that more ivory has been seized than cocaine, and that broad corruption is facilitating illegal trade in plants and animals. Meaning, the illegal wildlife trade is not slowing down.
One of the key observations in the report is that gaps in legislation, law enforcement, and criminal justice systems present serious issues to global wildlife populations. The report notes that addressing such vulnerabilities is crucial to combating wildlife crime.
“As we have seen time and again with all forms of organised crime and trafficking, criminals exploit gaps in legislation, law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” the report says. “If we want to get serious about wildlife and forest crime, we must shore up our collective responses and close these gaps.”
Rebecca Tilbrook is the Founder of the Perth-based grassroots conservation group For the Animals, which focuses on saving wildlife from poaching and trafficking in Asia. She has worked in the conservation field since 2002 and quickly realized that there is a big difference in the results being achieved by various charities. Since 2003 she has worked exclusively on stopping the illegal trade of endangered animals, first from Washington DC and more recently from Perth, WA.
Tilbrook says that large organizations receive hundreds of millions of dollars and typically direct this funding toward study and monitoring of wildlife and habitat. She says that while this is an important aspect of conservation, these large organizations have been reluctant to get involved in any way in law enforcement, which is a key component to stopping wildlife trafficking, one of the greatest threats Earth’s biodiversity is currently facing.
“It has only been in the past few years that the large conservation organizations have started to pay attention to the problem of illegal wildlife trade. Large organizations often develop very long-term strategies to conservation and are inflexible in dealing with urgent crises like wildlife trafficking,” Tilbrook said. “When they do address it they normally subcontract that work out to local groups. So while they are being entrusted with the majority of the public’s donations and financial support, they themselves have contributed little value to addressing the problem.”
The latest environmental crime results released by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL are staggering. The value of environmental crime is $91-258 billion today, which is 26 percent higher than previous estimates of $70-213 billion in 2014.
With hundreds of NGOs proclaiming to protect wildlife and environments, how do donors choose who to support? And why aren’t we making any headway?
Wealth, Power & Status
Big NGOs dominate the global conservation space with huge budgets and high-profile fundraising campaigns. But as Tilbrook notes, big initiatives to save iconic species are failing, partially because they compete with one another and rarely cooperate.
“Sadly, the focus of some very wealthy charities is on gaining recognition and ‘credit’ rather than on solving the problems at hand,” says Tilbrook. “If we are to be successful in saving our wildlife and wild places, we must be committed to problem solving and not empire building.”
We need to commit more financial resources to activities that produce results, including law enforcement, effective demand reduction campaigns that change consumer behavior, and education and training for vulnerable people who are targets of organized crime syndicates, Tilbrook added.
“We are not going to defeat wildlife crime with long-winded reports – it is going to take action,” she said.
Being a big player in the wildlife conservation arena means multiple layers of command, substantial overhead costs and major marketing expenditure to ensure donations continue. For each donor dollar channeled to these NGOs, very little is used for field projects that have an impact.
The organizations making the largest impacts are often running on a fraction of the funding, yet they are accountable and are delivering quantifiable results, according to Tilbrook. If donors want to contribute effectively, the role of different NGOs needs to be understood and examined. Donors must look for quantifiable results and facts-based, relevant evidence.
Impact of Grassroots Organizations
Generally, organizations working closest to the ground use donor funds the most sparingly. Some of the most effective organizations in terms of value for money are lean, local organizations staffed by dedicated people working tirelessly on tight budgets to protect wildlife in rough or dangerous circumstances.
Such focused efforts on the ground can achieve what millions of misplaced dollars and brand promotion cannot: results.
All over the world, grassroots NGOs are working determinedly to expose and prevent corruption inherent in wildlife poaching and trafficking networks.
NGOs such as these forego fancy offices and business class travel; they work on tight budgets and often perform dangerous investigative work. Although small and unassuming, these organizations are often able to score gains that large international agencies cannot.
As Tilbrook notes, often the most effective outcomes lie in the hands of highly committed people working exhaustive hours in the field or in very basic offices. With so much money and the future of global wildlife populations at stake, both donors and recipients need to be held firmly accountable. This is not the time for flashy promotional campaigns that aren’t rooted in a deeper willingness to actually be involved in the often messy on-ground efforts. This is the time for facts and focus; supporting on-ground, grassroots efforts to counter wildlife crimes worldwide.
It is time for the big NGOs to get their hands dirty, or otherwise, support the smaller organizations that are on the ground fighting.