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Crime & Justice

Led by INTERPOL, U.N. Tracks Environmental Criminals

A carpenter organises a load of mahogany, precious wood seized by the authorities in Cuba's Ciénaga de Zapata wetlands. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 28 2014 (IPS) - A coalition of international organisations, led by INTERPOL and backed by the United Nations, is pursuing a growing new brand of criminals – primarily accused of serious environmental crimes – who have mostly escaped the long arm of the law.

Described as a worldwide operation, it is the first of its kind targeting individuals wanted for a wide range of crimes, including logging, poaching and trafficking in animals declared endangered species.

Widespread poaching, particularly in central Africa, has resulted in the loss of at least 60 percent of elephants in that region during the last decade.

Last week, INTERPOL, the world’s largest international police organisation, released photographs of nine fugitives charged with these crimes – and who are on the run.

The individuals targeted include, among others, Feisal Mohamed Ali, alleged to be the leader of an ivory smuggling ring in Kenya, according to the U.N. Daily News.

The international coalition is seeking help from the public for information that could help track down the nine suspects whose cases have been singled out for the initial phase of the investigations.

Rob Parry-Jones, manager of international policy at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told IPS, “It sends a strong message that environmental crime is not merely an animal being illegally shot here or a tree illegally felled there. Environmental crime is highly organised crime and can have devastating impacts.”

He said INTERPOL’s response is something that WWF has wanted for some time. “It is also something that enforcement agencies have wanted for some time.”

The political platform and enabling environment for INTERPOL and other institutions to undertake the necessary research, and to be in a position to release such findings, is a welcome advance from a few years back when WWF and TRAFFIC first started their campaign to raise the political profile of wildlife crime, Parry-Jones said.

TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce) is a wildlife trade monitoring network supported by WWF.

Code-named INFRA-Terra (International Fugitive Round Up and Arrest), the global operation is supported by the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) – which is a collaborative effort of the Secretariat of the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), along with INTERPOL, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Bank and the World Customs Organisation.

In a press statement last week, Ben Janse van Rensburg, chief of enforcement support for CITES, said, “This first operation represents a big step forward against wildlife criminal networks.”

He said countries are increasingly treating wildlife crime as a serious offence, and “we will leave no stone unturned to locate and arrest these criminals to ensure they are brought to justice.”

Nathalie Frey, deputy political director at Greenpeace International, told IPS her organisation strongly supports the INTERPOL initiative to strengthen law enforcement against environmental crimes.

“Whilst INTERPOL has been looking more closely into environmental crimes for a number of years, this is the first time we have seen them reach out to the public appealing for further information and leads,” she said.

By giving environmental criminals a name and a face, she said, “it shows that law enforcement agencies are finally starting to take crimes such as illegal logging and fishing as seriously as murder or theft.”

WWF’s Parry-Jones told IPS that addressing environmental crimes effectively across international borders requires legal frameworks that can talk with each other.

Dual criminality where crimes of this scale are recognised in countries’ legal frameworks as serious crimes — a penalty of four-plus year’s imprisonment — brings the crimes within the scope of the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), enabling international law enforcement cooperation and mutual legal assistance, he said.

The nature of the crimes illustrates the links with other forms of transnational crime, including people trafficking and arms smuggling, and reinforces the argument over the past few years, both by WWF and TRAFFIC, that environmental crime is a cross-sectoral issue and a serious crime, he added.

Greenpeace’s Frey told IPS environmental crime is “big business”, and at an estimated 70-213 billion dollars per year, the earnings are almost on a par with other criminal activities such as drugs and arms trafficking. That estimate includes logging, poaching and trafficking of a wide range of animals, illegal fisheries, illegal mining and dumping of toxic waste.

Behind these perpetrators, she pointed out, are large networks of criminal activities, with corruption often permeating the whole supply chain of valuable commodities such as timber or fish.

Illegal logging, for example, is rife in many timber-producing countries, and is one of the main culprits for wiping out vast areas of forest that are often home to endangered species.

“Consumer markets are still awash with illegal wood despite regulations to ban the trade,” Frey said.

This, she said, is reflected in the staggering figures released by INTERPOL that illegal logging accounts for 50-90 percent of forestry in key tropical producer countries.

“Whilst we strongly welcome INTERPOL’s initiative to track down offenders and crack down on corruption it is very important that CITES [the U.N. convention to regulate international trade in endangered species] takes much greater action to encourage its parties to step up enforcement and controls,” Frey said.

She singled out the example of Afrormosia, a valuable tropical hardwood found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This species is under threat and has been listed as requiring special trade regulation under CITES, yet a blind eye continues to be turned to many cases of illegal trade.

Industrial loggers have a free pass to harvest Afrormosia in the country, despite illegal logging estimated to be almost 90 percent, she said.

CITES is supposed to verify legality, yet hundreds of CITES permits were unaccounted for. Traceability in the country is also non-existent, Frey added.

By allowing the continued trade of species that have been illegally harvested, CITES fails to protect species from extinction, and its lack of controls and weaknesses only serve to fuel environmental crimes, she declared.

According to the U.N. Daily News, wildlife crime has become a serious threat to the security, political stability, economy, natural resources and cultural heritage of many countries.

The extent of the response required to effectively address the threat is often beyond the sole remit of environmental or wildlife law enforcement agencies, or even of one country or region alone, it said.

Last June, the joint U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP)-INTERPOL Environmental Crime Crisis report, pointed to an increased awareness of, and response to, the growing global threat.

It called for concerted action aimed at strengthening action against the organised criminal networks profiting from the trade.

According to the report, one terrorist group operating in East Africa is estimated to make between 38 and 56 million dollars per year from the illegal trade in charcoal.

“Wildlife and forest crime also play a serious role in threat finance to organized crime and non-State armed groups, including terrorist organizations,” it said.

Ivory provides income to militia groups in the DRC and the Central African Republic. And it also provides funds to gangs operating in Sudan, Chad and Niger.

Last week, Uganda complained the loss of about 3,000 pounds of ivory from the vaults of its state-run wildlife protection agency.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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