Combating illegal wildlife trade: Banks take up the challenge
10 February 2020
Valued at around $23-billion, illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most profitable criminal trafficking enterprise worldwide, yet it lacks prominence as a financial crime. In a first-of-its-kind meeting in SA the financial sector, government and law enforcement met to discuss ways to combat the theft. Will the recent connections made between IWT and the deadly coronavirus pandemic force a more cogent effort to get the upper hand?
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Rob Campbell (United for Wildlife), Dr. Tim Wittig (Financial Task Force) and Investec's Gerald Byleveld and Tanya dos Santos delve into the mechanics of illegal wildlife trafficking and what it will take to clamp down on this highly syndicated crime.
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Understanding the scale of the problem
However, wildlife crime is a far more destructive and pervasive force than many believe. According to a study by US and UK scientists, quoted by the BBC, at least one in five vertebrate species on Earth are bought and sold on the wildlife market.
These astonishing figures far exceed previous estimates and highlight the extent of the global problem, with illegal wildlife trade (IWT) tracked to diverse regions including the Andes mountain range, Amazon rainforest, sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia and Australia.
In fact, illegal wildlife trade is currently a leading cause of animal extinction, together with loss of habitat due to land development. But the ramifications of the illicit trade isn't confined to conservation. It impacts a country's economic health, and it's peoples' well-being. The recent links between IWT and China's coronavirus being a case in point.
World's wildlife lost in past 50 years
1 in 5
vertebrate species traded illegally
Countries affected by wildlife crime
Investec head of group Sustainability, Tanya dos Santos, and United for Wildlife programme manager, Rob Campbell, on how financial institutions, government and law enforcement are joining forces to thwart the illegal wildlife trade.
A coordinated response to get the upper hand
To this end, The Royal Foundation, spearheaded by HRH The Duke of Cambridge, established a Transport Taskforce in 2016 and, more recently, a Financial Taskforce, both operating under the United for Wildlife banner.
“The initiative aims to create a platform for impact by bringing together private, public and third-sector partners that can work individually and cooperatively to reveal, disrupt and prevent illegal wildlife trafficking,” explained United for Wildlife Programme Manager, Rob Campbell.
“Our ambition is to make it impossible to use private-sector infrastructure to facilitate the financing and transportation of IWT products. It is also vital to combine intelligence from the transport and financial sectors to connect, intercept and hopefully bring down the wider criminal network.”
Pangolins trafficked in the last decade
Rhinos poached in SA in 2018
of pangolin scales seized in Singapore's 2019 bust
Bringing the right players together to share intelligence
At the January 28 meeting facilitated by United for Wildlife, and hosted by Investec, there were a number of financial institutions who showed interest in becoming signatories, and post the meeting Grobank Ltd, became the latest member.
Frances Craigie, Chief Dir of Enforcement at the Dept of Environmental Affairs commented: "I’m very excited because we’ve been doing this work for such a long time and when we meet it’s always the same people. What we need are new players and that’s what we're seeing with the financial sector getting involved. They’re coming in and saying they’ve got something to add and contribute to what we are doing. We’ve been talking about collaboration for so long, but now we are actually seeing it."
Gerald Byleveld, Investec's Group Money Laundering Reporting Officer, explains that they look for numerous red flags when it comes to IWT, including transactions that don't support a client's business model, and large cash deposits, especially among clients who own game farms.
Byleveld says that in addition to screening clients against criminal databases to reduce fraud risk, Investec's intention is to incorporate additional lists that identify poachers and traffickers, such as those from Wildlife Trusts.
However, more can and will be done to embed IWT into the bank's systems and processes to better detect suspicious activity linked to wildlife crime, and hopefully reduce the knock-on effect it has on the South African economy through its impact on tourism and job creation in the wildlife industry.
"There are opportunities to leverage technology and integrate mixed media into our analysis to potentially associate clients with reports on IWT cases."
Gerald Byleveld, Group Money Laundering Reporting Officer, Investec
China key to UFW taskforce effectiveness
Over the last four years, United for Wildlife has also established a global footprint that today includes government bodies, law enforcement and NGOs, and in 2019 secured an important participant in the form of its first Chinese bank.
Wildlife trafficking was also included as a priority by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is currently under Chinese presidency until July 2020.
“Gaining support from China was the final piece in the puzzle for us. The strength of these associations gives United for Wildlife the soft power to lean on other governments to affect change. Adding the Chinese-led FATF to the collaborative efforts already underway within various global industries and sectors should prompt more governments to take action and allocate additional funds and resources to combat the issue,” suggests Campbell.
David Fein, the Vice-Chair of the United for Wildlife Financial Taskforce, says that to date, the taskforce's efforts have supported over 70 investigations, contributed to 18 trafficker arrests, intercepted 108 shipments and played a key role in disrupting a major international ivory, rhino horn, and heroin syndicate in East Africa.
The United for Wildlife programme also helps to facilitate innovation in the fight against IWT with the use of modern technologies. “For example, Taskforce members are involved n a project at O.R. Tambo International Airport to develop a scanning system that can detect ivory and rhino horn, which would be a first in the world,” reveals Campbell.
"By going after wildlife smugglers, we can also pursue other crimes that are much higher on countries' national security radar, like terrorism and drug smuggling."
David Fein, Financial Taskforce Vice-Chair
"From the meeting, there was a really positive response from banks, conservationists and law enforcement wanting to collaborate. There's obviously a lot more than still needs to be done, and time isn't on our side, but progress is being made," said a clearly upbeat Campbell post the United for Wildlife meeting.
Coronavirus traced back to pangolins
According to a study by the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and confirmed by the South China Agricultural University- DNA analysed from 21 Malayan pangolins is "a near-perfect match for the current outbreak of the coronavirus", says a Daily Maverick article.
The article continues: "It is probable that the virus originated in bats, with pangolins being the vector into humans. In past epidemics, vectors have been pigs, chickens, ducks, and camels."
To date, the pandemic has killed over 1,000 people worldwide. In response to the links between wildlife trade and the latest outbreak, China has put a temporary ban on the sale of wildlife and its products, but many are now arguing that this is the best reason to make the ban permanent, something that China is reportedly considering.