Contrary to the forms of organized crime that were analysed in previous paragraphs, there is no universally accepted definition of wildlife and forest crime. Broadly speaking, wildlife and forest crime is the illegal exploitation of the world's wild flora and fauna, which includes the taking, trading (supplying, selling or trafficking), importing, exporting, processing, possessing, obtaining and consuming wild fauna and flora in contravention of national or international law. Trafficking in wild fauna and flora concerns plants and animals, but also products derived from them.
The lack of a definition of this crime does not mean that wild flora and fauna are unprotected internationally. The 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES, lays out rules for trade in over 35,000 protected species, listed in three Appendices to the Convention according to the degree of protection accorded.
CITES requires its parties to penalise trade in violation of the agreement, although it does not require these violations to be deemed a crime. In very simple terms, this means that in some countries, trafficking in CITES-listed species can only be punished with a fine, while in others, offenders can be sentenced to more than four years in prison. This differentiation matters because, as mentioned in Module 1 of this Guide, a "serious crime" for the purpose of Organized Crime Convention means an offence punishable by a maximum penalty of incarceration of at least four years.
CITES is a trade agreement, not a vehicle of international criminal law, which means that it only applies to wild flora and fauna that is traded internationally. Nonetheless, it is particularly relevant because it defines the rules that most traffickers try to elude, since the key criminal threat to wild fauna and flora is illicit trade. The Convention also has a powerful compliance mechanism: non-compliant parties may be excluded from trading in CITES-listed species, which can result in potentially serious economic consequences ( CITES, 1973).
CITES is legally binding on ratifying parties but does not take the place of national legislation. Rather it provides a framework to be respected by each party, which has to adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level. Furthermore, parties to CITES are free to regulate Convention-listed species within their territory as they see fit, so long as the product does not move internationally. This also translates into the fact that most CITES enforcement takes place at ports of entry and therefore, an important part of monitoring of compliance with CITES is conducted by national customs agents. Non-government organizations (NGOs) also play an important role in monitoring excessive exploitation and illegal trade, and they have published very useful reports, which serve to raise awareness, foster protective legislation, and inform law enforcement.
Even though CITES provides a very valuable framework for the licit trade of controlled species, there are millions more that are endangered but not covered by the Convention. Nonetheless, the species that are not protected by this Convention might be protected under specific national legislation, because particularly significant or especially at-risk in a certain region. Furthermore, besides CITES, there are also other wildlife and forest protection agreements that may have national implementation laws with criminal consequences, such as some fisheries or timber agreements.
In recent years, more than 1,000 rhinoceros have been poached annually, out of a population of about 30,000. Their horns can command prices in the tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. Mainly due to a surge in poaching for ivory that began approximately a decade ago, the African elephant population has seen the highest reduction in 25 years: it is estimated that it declined by 20 per cent between 2006 and 2015. (IUCN, 2016) Similarly, tens of thousands of pangolins are poached each year. (Heinrich, Wittmann, Prowse, Ross, Delean, Shepherd, Casseya, 2016; Xu, Guan, Lau and Xiao, 2016) By its very nature, it is almost impossible to obtain reliable figures for the value of illegal wildlife trade, but estimates place it in the billions of dollars ( TRAFFIC, 2018).
The extent of the killing shows that wildlife crime is no longer an "emerging crime," but a serious form of transnational organized crime. These kinds of criminal poaching and trafficking enterprises, both large and small, carry out what is seen today as one of the largest transnational organized criminal activities, alongside drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and trafficking in persons. Organized criminal groups often employ the same techniques and routes for trafficking in wild fauna and flora used for other illicit commodities, and much like in other markets, they exploit gaps in national law enforcement and criminal justice systems.
Demand remains very high for rare and highly valued plants and animals, as well as products made from them, which is why the exploitation and trafficking of these resources remains at alarmingly high levels. The demand is spread among collectors (for products such as orchids, lizards, ivory, parrots), those who seek these products for medicinal and food value (such as turtles, rhinoceros horns, bear gallbladders, tuna, conch), and those seeking raw materials for manufacturing purposes (such as timber).
Nonetheless, there is also increasing recognition of the dangers wildlife and forest crime pose not only to the environment but also to the rule of law and stability of nations, and of the potential for the criminal proceeds to fuel conflict and terrorism. (UNODC, 2016) The trafficking of wild flora and fauna is also inextricably connected to other types of crime like fraud, money-laundering, corruption and counterfeiting. For instance, similar to other sensitive commodities such as firearms or medical products, CITES-listed species can be legally traded internationally if accompanied by the appropriate paperwork. Since in many cases hiding illegal wildlife shipments is impractical, traffickers use fraudulent paperwork to export the goods overtly. Permits for around 900,000 legal shipments of protected wildlife products are issued annually, and case studies show that permits acquired through forgery, fraud or corruption have been used to traffic wildlife (UNODC, 2016). To know more about wildlife, forest and fisheries crime, please access the dedicated UNODC Teaching Module Series.
There are two notable shortcomings in the protection framework of wild flora and fauna. First of all, domestic markets for illicit trade in wild fauna and flora remain beyond CITES's jurisdiction; this means that the illegal harvesting of wildlife, such as poaching, is a matter that falls outside of the Convention's mandate and is left to the purview of national authorities. Secondly, there are millions of species that are not listed in CITES' Appendixes and as such, they might be illegally harvested and traded internationally. Some of these are covered by specific national legislation or other bilateral and multilateral protection agreements. This is frequently the case in timber and fish trafficking, often regulated by distinct bodies of law and monitored by different enforcement agencies.
The illegal timber trade, in particular, requires increased global attention. A major proportion of the world's timber comes from three regions: The Amazon basin, the Congo basin, and Southeast Asia. All three regions are facing issues such as corruption and timber laundering inside origin or transit countries, which undermine monitoring and facilitate illicit trade. Timber laundering is the process of converting illegally-cut timber into a legally-certified product and it is often carried out by exploiting loopholes in national legal systems and relying on trafficking channels to insert the goods in the legal market (Transparency International, 2011). Taking into account different regional realities, inspection and enforcement efforts as well as cooperation at the international level need to be enhanced and improved in order to tackle effectively illegal timber trade in particular, and more broadly, trafficking in wild flora and fauna.