Uniting Against Organized Wildlife Crime


David Maxwell Braun, National Geographic

Date Published


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Law enforcement agencies, NGOs, and business leaders gathered from across the world in Washington this week to share information and expertise and organize a concerted strategy to combat the global scourge of wildlife trafficking.

The unprecedented collaboration was heralded at the National Geographic Society’s headquarters on Tuesday, at an event held against the backdrop of recent news of a catastrophic plunge in the last wild populations of African elephants and other species. The meeting also set the stage for CITES CoP17, a world wildlife conference in Johannesburg at the end of this month that will bring more than a hundred governments together to review the planet’s biggest wildlife challenges and opportunities.

Stories From the Front Line: Exploring Global Law Enforcement in the New Age of Wildlife Trafficking —  the title of the event hosted by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) – was attended also by officials and conservation experts from 11 African nations on the frontline of poaching of elephants, rhinos, and other iconic species.

The National Geographic/FWS event coincided with the publication of the October 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine, which features a report on the rhino horn trade and rhino farming in South Africa, written by Bryan Christy, the Society’s wildlife crimes investigator.

Human-Wildlife Conflict Likely to Grow

The human population is expected to grow to nine billion people by 2050, one billion more in Africa alone in the next 35 years, said National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary E. Knell, at the opening of the event. “The chances of human-wildlife conflict are going to grow, whether we like it or not. We’ve got to come up with solutions, whether they’re in Yellowstone National Park ecosystems, or whether it’s in Gorongosa [National Park in Mozambique], or in Kenya or Cameroon. We have to find ways to find a balance and figure out ways to protect the natural habitats of wildlife, and at the same time protect the human needs for survival, food, housing, education, energy, and for all the things which we deserve in human rights.”

Bryan Christy’s work on wildlife crime has been cited as one of ten ways National Geographic is changing the world, Knell said. Christy, head of the Society’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) team and 2014 NG Explorer of the Year, is an award-winning journalist and a true champion for wildlife and wild places, he added. “With dedication, courage and conviction [Christy] has already produced astounding results, exposing the criminals of wildlife trafficking and sharing these stories in print, television, digital media, Facebook. That’s how we can make his work amplified. That work has put elephants and the illegal trade in elephants on the priority list of many countries, including our own, and has led to numerous Internet petitions and campaigns to stop the illegal ivory trade.”

Enforcement Is Key — But not Enough

David J. Hayes, Chair of the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance and Vice Chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, said enforcement was key, both domestically in the U.S. and in Africa. “It is so fantastic that the FWS is training you all together to have an effective force,” he told the dozens of wildlife protection and law enforcement officers at the event. “But enforcement is not enough; we have to reduce the demand. As long as there are tremendous dollars chasing illegal products, it’s going to be impossible for you guys to completely win,” he said.

Hayes said there was a need to develop international cooperation and public-private partnerships. “The government can’t reduce demand by itself. We need all of civil society to come together. We need all of the big nonprofits in this space to not compete against each other, but to work together. And we need to recruit the corporate sector. We need new voices in this debate. We need companies that are being abused by traffickers, to step up, make sure that their supply chains are not being polluted by trafficked goods, and use their communications channels to deliver a broad message to consumers [to] ‘Watch out, don’t buy this stuff. You may be the unwitting purchaser of it.’”

Hayes said the Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking went first to National Geographic to form a broad organization, “and with National Geographic, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the African Wildlife Foundation…we brought them under the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance banner. Then we went to the corporate world and said, we need your help…we’re a nongovernmental temporary coalition bringing together the nonprofit community with the corporate community. We looked at leading companies in important sectors that traffickers were using. The e-commerce sector for example.”

Secret Sauce

The broad coalition of companies and NGOs under one umbrella speaks with one voice to help American consumers make better decisions, Hayes said.

But there’s a secret sauce in this, he added. “You might say, why are you spending so much time in the U.S. consumer world when we know that the largest demand is coming from Southeast Asia. If we get global big name companies like Google, E-bay, Ralph Lauren, and others taking up this cause, communicating with their customers about the importance of this issue, that’s going to affect international commerce, too. We’re already seeing it happening. If we can get it done in the U.S., we think it will take fire globally as well.”

“All of society needs to help you do your job,” Hayes told the law enforcement gathering. “And with National Geographic’s voice, with the impetus of companies and NGOs working together, we can address this issue and we must.”

Engagement Key to Success

“National Geographic’s work gives us inspiration and helps us see what’s possible in a world of challenge that often seems impossible,” Daniel M. Ashe, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the meeting. “If we are going to solve this crisis, this epidemic of wildlife trafficking, engaging people is the key ingredient in success.”

Photo Ark: A Reminder of What’s at Stake

“Things like [the National Geographic project] Photo Ark with its 6,000 images, all of them a reminder of what’s at stake,” was an example of engagement, Ashe said. “Iconic creatures like African elephant and black rhino and Sumatran tiger, but also the thousands of less charismatic creatures that form the foundation and the sinews that connect this global ecosystem on which we depend. The decline of all of these species, the great and small, the loved and obscure, is an ominous sign for the health of the planet and the billions of people that it sustains — and there will more people in the future, which reminds us that we need to do more and better.”

As we think about the future of prosecuting this effort, we can’t just catch the poachers and the middlemen, Hayes added. “We have to go after the people who are making the money, so that we take wildlife trafficking from a high-profit, low-risk endeavor toward a lower profit, higher risk endeavor.”

Operation Crash

The success of Operation Crash [an ongoing nationwide criminal investigation led by the FWS Office of Law Enforcement, focusing on the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory in response to international poaching and smuggling syndicates] was a key reason why the FWS was working to position senior agents around the globe to facilitate these efforts, Ashe said. The agency had recently selected a special agent to serve in Libreville, Gabon, joining five other attaches stationed in embassies in China, Thailand, Tanzania, Botswana, and Peru. “Hopefully before the end of the year, we will have attaches placed in three more key embassies around the world, because we’ve seen the tremendous value that these agents provide in improving our collaboration and information-sharing. They are dramatically expanding the reach and effectiveness of our law enforcement efforts and communication among law enforcement agencies across the globe,” Ashe said.

Long Time Coming

Introducing a panel discussion, Bryan Christy noted that the gathering of an international group of law enforcement officials had been a long time coming.

“Wildlife crime is organized crime…something that funds terrorist organizations operating in central Africa. It is violent…militarized…mechanized. And one of the advantages that it has is that law enforcement is not violent most of the time, not as well-funded, and, from the international perspective, not historically organized.

“You as law enforcement officers have restrictions that criminals don’t; you have diplomatic restrictions on the ability cross borders, you have funding limitations, and you are outfitted with outdated technology occasionally. Criminals are not. Organized criminals are not, especially. So what’s exciting to me about tonight is that this represents organized crime fighters.”

Christy noted that he had created the National Geographic Special Investigations Unit with specific goals: “To allow me to work on long investigations, give voice to the work that you do, have a platform for law-enforcement, and to profile endangered species and species we don’t hear enough about — and then to empower communities on the ground, talk to journalists in developing countries where wildlife exists, and to law enforcement in those places.”

Following the Story No One Else Can Tell

“I tell law enforcement, if you share your story with me I will follow it,” Christy said. “I know you can’t follow it…because of funding and so on. We have had great success doing that. And the success comes from sharing that story, sharing the work that you’re doing, the work being done in other countries, pulling that together. And the impact can be pretty impressive.”
Highlights of the Discussion

Curtis Brown: “It takes a lot of work, money and patience to allow for conservation work to happen, especially undercover work. It takes a long time for these cases to actually develop. And it costs a lot of money. So we appreciate everyone’s support in that endeavor.

At a national association of conservation law enforcement chiefs meeting we will be trying to collaborate better, share information better, have better intelligence. We are going to get together and do a better job of sharing trafficking intelligence and work better together as investigators. Talking across borders is critical. Any time you share data it’s always hard, but if you sit down and share information in conversation, that is valuable information.

Julius Kamwendwit Cheptei: Kenya is divided into eight conservation areas. One of those is the area I am responsible for, in the southern part of the country, 31,000 square kilometers, the equivalent of Israel. I have about 600 foot soldiers charged with the responsibility to ensure the survival of elephants, rhinos, and all other species. A big challenge is conflict between wildlife and community, but our primary responsibility is to ensure that wildlife survives.

Mike Cenci: We have 130 very dedicated Fish and Wildlife police officers and a small cadre of detectives that focus on trafficking and crimes related to natural resources. Some of you may be wondering what does this state agency have to do with the trafficking of species, particularly at the international level. Well, as a state, we’ve experienced our own natural resources being trafficked on a global scale. We’re often the source…there’s a lot of diversity in the Pacific Northwest…and our resources that are in relative abundance are highly valued worldwide, so we understand what some of these other nations are facing. If we are going to be concerned about our challenges, we have to show a lot of concern for their challenges. We know that wildlife trafficking is global and it requires a global response, and that requires that it be coordinated worldwide.

Chrstopher Fominyam Njoh Tangi: Responsible for the latest national park created in Cameroon (2015). We have a problem of bush meat, and our greatest problem is cross-border poaching from Nigeria. We also have a problem with the small trophy that comes out of our park, the buffalo horn, which is used as a drinking cup in our tradition. One of our greatest ways of handling wildlife crime is working with our local people. We have a lot of wildlife, but we need to do research to know what we have in the park. The park is enclaved, with no roads, so we have to work with the local people.

The wildlife criminals from Nigeria use the local people as their accomplices to get to what they want. We educate the local people to not be accomplices. In our culture, local people may take a little bush meat for their cultural use, but they may not sell it. But they always abuse this, so we have to discipline them. We have to work with them, get their support to track and find Nigerian trans-boundary poachers.

We don’t have the technology, manpower, money, but we work with the local population. But what we hear from them is, “What is the alternative, if we don’t work with these people who are paying us to show them where to get these animals, what are we going to do?” The challenge is to find partners who can come into these communities and help with alternative livelihoods, so they can have a better life and turn away from these poachers.

We must look at habitat to improve it. If the animals have a place to hide, they will outsmart the poachers by using the camouflage of the forest. Where we have deforested, the animals are exposed and can be shot from a long distance away. The restored forest is not friendly to poachers; more friendly to animals that can hide there. That’s the planned aspect of our work…give animals places to hide and better security.

Tim Santel: We kicked off Operation Crash in 2011 with a team of special agents. I can say five years later, I  am very proud of the results that our team put together. [Operation Crash is the centerpiece of Bryan Christy’s rhino story in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic.] It is an extraordinary case that shows at multiple level the challenges for law enforcement and the impact of the U.S. Government.

John Webb, Member of the Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, and U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor (retired): We need well trained, well prepared investigators, and to be effective across borders requires those same investigators to cooperate among themselves. Two other important players in effective interdiction and enforcement: prosecutors and judges. How do we get that group of dedicated prosecutors that will take our effective investigations and turn them into successful prosecutions? How do we ensure that we have judges that take our cases seriously and are not corrupt? We have a trilogy of players, all of who must be on the same page for us to have effective wildlife crime fighting.