Out of the Jungle and into the Bank: The Domestic Impacts of Global Wildlife Trafficking

Article Authored By: Teresa Dettloff

Defining Wildlife Trafficking

While there is no universally accepted definition of wildlife trafficking, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that “[w]ildlife trafficking involves the illegal trade, smuggling, poaching, capture, or collection of endangered species, protected wildlife (including animals or plants that are subject to harvest quotas and regulated by permits), derivatives, or products thereof.”[1] Animals, including protected and endangered species, are trafficked and poached globally to obtain either the animal itself to sell, or to obtain ingredients to create products, such as medicine, food, jewelry, and carvings. Ivory is frequently sought to use in both jewelry and carvings, and sharks are often fished illegally for their fins, to be sold for use in a dish known as shark fin soup. Animals are also trafficked to be sold as exotic pets. Further, wildlife trafficking is a lucrative business. For example, annual illicit income generated from ivory trafficking from 2016 through 2018 was approximately $400 million.[2]

How it Works

Wildlife trafficking is a complex global crime which is facilitated by criminal organizations and is protected through a series of financial crimes. Money laundering specifically is a method used to hide the origin of illicit proceeds, and therefore, plays a critical role in disguising funds obtained through illegal wildlife trafficking.[3] Financial institutions across the globe are unknowingly utilized to conceal the source of illicitly procured funds. 

The supply chain for wildlife trafficking is complex, involving multiple layers of involvement and cross-border activities, making it difficult to identify. The supply chain typically begins with leaders in criminal organizations who are responsible for sourcing the wildlife, known as local collectors. Local collectors coordinate with poachers, who procure the wildlife. Transporters then move the wildlife across borders, typically drafting false documents and bribing officials to remain undetected. The wildlife and wildlife products then enter the market for purchase by consumers.[4]

Financial institutions are unknowingly involved in the process. Criminal organizations make cash deposits of the proceeds disguised as legitimate payments, and wire money to different institutions to further conceal the origin of the funds.[5]  The transnational nature of this crime, and the fact that money can easily be moved around the world, makes it extremely difficult to trace the origin of illicit funds obtained through wildlife trafficking and to identify exactly where the money is coming from.

The Law and International Organizations

As wildlife trafficking is a transnational crime, international conventions and organizations have been developed to address the issue on many levels. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a framework that was devised to address the illegal acts and negative environmental impacts of illicit wildlife trade. CITES outlaws trade of certain endangered species and regulates the trade of other species by requiring export permits and certificates of origin. Several organizations also work to address illicit wildlife trafficking on an international level, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the International Consortium on Combatting Wildlife Crime (ICCWC), among others.

Domestic Impacts

Even though a species of animal may be poached in a country thousands of miles away from where funds obtained from the sale are laundered in the final step of the cycle, the financial gains received by criminal organizations and the acts required to conceal those gains truly do have a global effect. Online banking and the ability to wire money from financial institutions across the world make money laundering an attractive tool for these organizations and leave financial institutions vulnerable to abuse and undermines the integrity and security of the institution.

[1] https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/wildlife-crime/module-3/key-issues/criminalization-of-wildlife-trafficking.html

[2] United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, 2020 Report, p. 19, https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/wildlife/2020/World_Wildlife_Report_2020_9July.pdf.

[3] See id.

[4] FATF 2020 Report, Money Laundering and the Illegal Wildlife Trade, p. 16, https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/wildlife/2020/World_Wildlife_Report_2020_9July.pdf

[5] Id. at 17.

About the Author:

Teresa Detloff

Teresa Dettloff practices law in Chicago, Illinois and is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where she served as a lead article editor for the law journal. She is also a member of the United Nations Association Chicago Chapter.

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