“Please, let’s stop talking about illegal trade in wildlife. It’s not illegal trade — it’s crime,” says John Sellar, an independent anti-smuggling, fraud and organised crime consultant who spoke at a breakfast seminar organised by the South African Institute of International Affairs and the Conservation Action Trust in Cape Town last Tuesday.
“We’re talking about organised crime and until we live up to that and we address this issue as a criminal issue, we’re not going to get our responses right.”
A Scott with four decades of experience in law enforcement, Sellar exudes the no-nonsense attitude of an old-fashioned cop and he’s certainly no bunny hugger. “I’ve never thought of myself as working in wildlife conservation. My motivation has never been to save the tiger, save the elephant, save the planet”.
When it comes to the debate over the efficacy of legalising the trade in rhino horn, he “couldn’t care less either way”, but he is deeply concerned about the severity of global wildlife crime and believes that it is not being taken seriously enough. He thinks the response should be on par with that for international drug trafficking.
“We’ve all heard about the number of elephants and rhinos that have been killed. But humans are dying, too”. He points to the example of the DRC’s Virunga National Park where over 100 rangers have lost their lives on duty in the recent past.
After 23 years in the Scottish police, Sellar was asked to move to Geneva in 1997 to work with the United Nations where he became the chief of enforcement for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Now he believes that the law enforcement community needs to wake up to the fact that wildlife crime is serious organised crime which warrants sophisticated counter measures.
He describes a recent incident in which approximately half a ton of cocaine valued at about R9 million was confiscated when a vessel registered in Tanzania was impounded in Aberdeen. The operation involved a coordinated effort by a number of agencies from the UK and elsewhere in Europe, including the military, border police, fisheries protection vessels, customs officers and the Scottish police.
This example “shows how seriously we treat narcotics. If that amount of resources is thrown at it, that’s a game changer. That’s the level we need to go to if we are going to respond to the sort of problems in wildlife crime”.
Sellar’s assessment is confirmed by a report published by the United Nation Environmental Programme (UNEP) and Interpol last year, which identifies environmental crime as increasingly sophisticated, organised, globalised and rapidly expanding.
Estimates of the monetary value involved range from $70-billion to $213-billion annually — on par with or substantially more than the amount of international financial aid that flows into developing countries every year (about $135-billion in 2013). Illegal activities include not only the poaching and trafficking of wildlife, but also the smuggling of plants and unlawful mining, logging, fishing and dumping of toxic waste.
The illicit trade in plants and animals alone is believed to amount to between $7- billion and $23-billion per year, derived from black market sales of a wide variety of plant, reptile, fish, bird, insect, amphibian and mammal species, dead, alive or in parts. Forest crime, which includes illegal logging and charcoal smuggling, accounts for a massive $30-million to $100-billion annually, equivalent to between 10 and 30% of the world’s total trade in timber.
Beyond the involvement of transnational organised crime syndicates, environmental crime is also increasingly being linked to terrorist groups and non-state militias throughout Africa. The notorious Lord’s Resistance Army that operates in parts of the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the DRC, for instance, is probably largely funded through income from elephant poaching and ivory sales.
Noting that environmental crime threatens not only the natural world itself, but also state security, revenues from natural resources and the achievement of sustainable development goals, especially in developing countries, the UNEP report calls for a comprehensive, coordinated and collaborative approach to the crisis that, among other measures, strengthens the support for national and international law enforcement agencies.
Sellar points out that it will take a long time to stop wildlife criminality even if effective counter measures are put into action. He further notes that the introduction of a legal trade in rhino horn, currently under consideration by the South African government, will not result in a quick fix of the country’s poaching epidemic.
He believes that even if the South African government were to submit a proposal to legalise trade in rhino horn at next year’s CITES conference in Cape Town and if the CITES community were to vote in favour of such a resolution, it would take 18 months and probably considerably longer before any actual trade would take place. “So you are going to have to keep dealing with this poaching for some time to come.”
Sellar, who published an autobiographical book titled The UN’s Lone Ranger: Combating International Wildlife Crime last year, questions the extent to which indigenous communities in South Africa have been brought on board to make anti-poaching measures more effective. “Has South Africa as a nation bought into this? How much do you value your wildlife? What are your communities getting out of it and is there a strong desire to respond to the criminal exploitation of your natural resources?” he wonders.
On a more positive note, Sellar commends the efforts of those South Africans who are actively involved in combating wildlife crime. “You have a terrible crisis with your rhinos, but if this hadn’t been happening in South Africa, those rhino populations would have been wiped out months ago. It’s because you have dedicated park rangers, customs officials and police officers — even given the odd allegation of corruption. The majority of the people involved are doing really difficult, hazardous work and we as the international community should really thank South Africa.”