Treat wildlife trafficking like drugs trade


Simon Marsh, Opinion / The Star

Date Published

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The recent arrest of Liberian wildlife trafficker Moazu Kromah in Uganda made only modest international headlines. But it was one of the most significant events in the history of illegal wildlife trade investigations in sub-Saharan Africa. I hope it marks a turning point in the approach combating wildlife trafficking and makes it clear to those in charge that IWT must be treated as transnational organised crime. 

On June 12, Moazu Kromah, a Liberian citizen code-named Kampala Man. was arrested in Uganda. The next day, Kromah was standing in a federal courthouse in New York City as a judge read the charges against him, including conspiracy to sell rhino horns and elephant ivory valued at $7.4 million (Sh761 million).

The arrest resulted from a joint operation between Ugandan law enforcement, the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Kromah was already facing charges of trafficking ivory in Uganda dating back to 2016 and 2017. Despite this, he was out on bail and able to continue masterminding a high-level international trafficking ring. It is accused of smuggling large quantities of ivory, rhino horn and other wildlife products from countries across East Africa to buyers in the US and Southeast Asia. 

After this arrest, he was on an aircraft bound for New York within a couple of hours. If convicted, he faces a possible life in prison in the US, although he may be allowed to cooperate in return for a lighter sentence.

The Kromah case illustrates something I have advocated for a long time: law enforcement authorities need to apply their collective experience in drug trafficking investigations to the illegal wildlife trade. This means shifting the focus from the low-level players to the masterminds profiting from the organised trade without getting their own hands dirty. 

It also means shifting from talking to doing. Conferences and workshops have their place, but what’s desperately needed is hands-on support to help our law enforcement officers gain skills necessary to successfully tackle illegal trafficking networks. You don’t learn this by reading a manual. Out-of-the-box thinking doesn’t come in a box. It comes from learning by doing and needs support by experienced practitioners.

It means working together across borders in a much swifter and more effective manner. People, commodities and money move very quickly. Law enforcement needs catch up. For that, personal relationships are essential, and they don’t arise from formal letters and official conferences.

Instead, we need law enforcement officials to talk to each other on the phone, if necessary several times a day, and to develop trust. These direct operational relationships can help overcome barriers to sharing sensitive information, gathering effective intelligence and cooperating in investigations at an operational level.

Finally, it means working together across sectors. The Kromah case illustrates how coordinated action and cooperation between law enforcement and private sector stakeholders — transport companies, freight forwarders, banks, payment systems and others — can significantly increase the striking power of wildlife trafficking investigations and illuminate a much larger part of the puzzle.

In a digital world, it is very difficult to exist off-grid. Greater collaboration and sharing of intelligence on illegal wildlife trade will help us catch the bad guys masterminding the trafficking networks and sending their ill-gotten gains offshore. 

Senior Investigation Specialist at the Basel Institute on Governance