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Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN


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Illegal Wildlife Trafficking: Chapter 5

Arrests for IWT rarely result in successful prosecutions and convictions. The penalties and prison sentences given are remarkably low.

Only 11% of wildlife crimes were successfully prosecuted, according to a 2017 report by the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Of the cases examined for the report, only 7% resulted in prison penalties and only 1% resulted in serious prison sentences.

So investigating failures of the legal system offers promising angles for reporting.

The Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Journalism runs several databases that track the workings of the legal system, largely based on court documents.

#WildEye is Oxpeckers’ tool “designed by journalists for journalists” to track wildlife crime across Europe.

#WildEye Asia, also from Oxpeckers, follows wildlife crime across the continent.

Rhino Court Cases is Oxpecker’s database dealing with cases in southern Africa. See its description here.

#WildEye Southern Africa is a database that tracks seizures, arrests, court cases, and convictions from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, and Mozambique.

The searchable websites above track seizures, arrests, court cases, and convictions. If you want to learn about illegal trade in birds, for instance, simply search “birds” and you’ll get results covering seizures, arrests, court cases, and convictions involving that word. Check out the Oxpeckers Get the Data page. You can sign up for alerts and see the archive of their investigations here.

Oxpeckers’ approach provides a template for how to document prosecutions of wildlife traffickers. Creating your own database, tailored around particular species or jurisdictions, may be easier than you think. For ideas, look at the spreadsheets used for Oxpeckers stories. They use various fields to facilitate analysis.

In India, the Wildlife Crime Database maintained by the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has details of over 33,300 wildlife cases, and 27,000 alleged wildlife criminals.

National governments may keep data, too.

Valuable Stories

What kinds of stories result?

See examples involving low prosecution rates in China, South Africa, Nepal, and Eastern Europe. This Oxpeckers’ article on Vietnam includes data from a report by Action Against Extinction, a Vietnamese NGO.

For The Pangolin Reports, a major collaborative investigation, reporters reviewed more than 400 court decisions in criminal cases in China related to the illegal trade in pangolins from 2005 to 2019. It found that “in only a few of the court cases we studied were prosecutors able or willing to retrace the smuggling routes to their origins, like Indonesia and Nigeria.”

The section on Indonesia in The Pangolin Reports shows additional reasons to mine records. “Several seizures and court cases point to a network linked to a man called Robert Ongah,” the report said. Getting him to talk, not surprisingly, wasn’t possible.

Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN

In an Oxpeckers article, Insurgents Linked to India’s Rhino Poaching Syndicates, Sadiq Naqvi used arrest data to show that the Zomi Revolutionary Army in India orders rhino horns that are smuggled via Myanmar to China. The article also documents a low prosecution to arrest ratio.

Sometimes the lack of data might trigger a story.

For example, Bolivia’s Jaguar Seizures Down as Suspicions Rise over New Mafia, by Vanessa Romo for Diálogo Chino was based on her noticing that there had been no seizures of jaguar parts in Bolivia and asking the question: “What could be behind the trend and how is the country responding?”

The subject of weak laws and low conviction rates is a major one for NGOs, too. Getting acquainted with local and international activists may pay dividends.

For example, The Independent in the UK wrote an article based on work by Wildlife and Countryside Link (WCL) saying that many wildlife crimes go unwitnessed, unreported, and unpunished. The group keeps close track of wildlife crime in England and Wales, issuing annual reports (2019) finding fault with national record-keeping.

Follow-ups on big cases can be very revealing. See what happened with two major prosecutions in Africa, in an article by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

The Larger “Why?” Picture

In parallel, to explain why prosecutions lag, there are important policy stories to tell, about weak laws and enforcement infrastructure.

Macro-level topics could include:

  • Are national laws adequate?
  • What crimes get charged and how do trafficking charges relate to other charges, such as for money laundering?
  • Are the penalties high enough?
  • Are enough resources allocated for interdiction and prosecution?
  • Are tools such as sniffer dogs and X-ray machines being used and having an impact?

Researching such stories also may reveal the vested interests involved.

Back in 2016, a tool was developed to help assess government action on IWT. It isn’t much used, but does provide a framework potentially of use by reporters: the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime Indicator Framework for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime.

There are also smaller, but significant, stories to be told about impediments to prosecution. For example, seemingly simple problems in the court system, such as a lack of translators in Africa for defendants from Asia, have resulted in judges throwing cases out.

For information on the international and national regimes governing IWT, see chapter 7.

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