Wildlife & Biodiversity

‘Wildlife trafficking and crime are ever shifting and changing’

Azzedine Downes, president and CEO of International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) spoke to the media about various issues concerning global wildlife trafficking and crime

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Saturday 13 July 2019
IFAW CEO Azzedine  Downes addresses a meeting with WTI's Vivek Menon. Photo: Ayushman Singh/WTI
IFAW CEO Azzedine  Downes addresses a meeting with WTI's Vivek Menon. Photo: Ayushman Singh/WTI
IFAW CEO Azzedine Downes addresses a meeting with WTI's Vivek Menon. Photo: Ayushman Singh/WTI

Wildlife trafficking and crimes are fluid, ever-changing processes and a single-minded focus on certain wildlife products won’t help the cause of conservation until criminal networks are destroyed, the head of one of the globe’s largest conservation charities has said.

“If you only focus on a product, you are going to miss disrupting a network that will move to anything else it can make money on,” Azzedine Downes, the president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told reporters in Delhi on July 12, 2019.

Downes is in India for meetings with IFAW’s Indian partner, Delhi-based conservation non-profit, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), headed by conservationist Vivek Menon.

He made the statement in response to a question on how to reduce demand for wildlife parts in Asian nations like China and Vietnam.

“There are three elements to wildlife trafficking and crime: the places where poached animals live, meaning the source countries; the trade networks through which the products pass and finally, the consumers, like China,” he explained.

Downes gave the instance of ivory.

“Stopping the ivory trade by stopping consumerism in China is critically important. But in many cases, the animals are already dead,” he said.

“One of the things that we do in terms of wildlife crime is to disrupt and destroy the networks of criminal activity. It is a shift away from this notion that the criminals involved in wildlife trade are ivory or pangolin scale or rhino horn traders,” Downes told the reporters.

“This is a mistake because it is not the product they focus on. It is the network of criminals. And they are the same networks that deal with things like drugs, cigarettes, arms and terrorist connections. So the notion that you must stop one product from being consumed is not going to disrupt the criminal network,” he added.

For instance, the immense spotlight on elephant ivory has resulted in hippos being targeted for their tusks, to be used as substitutes for elephant ones.

Similarly, the craze for ivory has reduced in China, while it is rearing its head in Japan, a new market.

Downes attributed the change in attitudes in China towards ivory products to creation of public awareness.

“Most Chinese used to think that ivory was just teeth. That it was made from teeth that had fallen from the animal and no harm had come to it. Once they began to understand that the vast majority of ivory they consumed came from animals that were killed, the percentage of people willing to buy ivory fell from about 80 per cent to 36 per cent,” he said.

Downes said Japan was hardly talked about in discussions on the ivory issue. “Markets move. The Japanese have not taken the steps that China has taken vis-a-vis ivory,” he said.

WTI’s Vivek Menon agreed that wildlife crime was continuously changing, giving the example of India.

“It is always an up-and-down thing. I spent a lot of time tackling wildlife crime early on. In 1991, when we formed TRAFFIC India, there was no one looking at wildlife crime. It has become much better today,” he said.

Menon gave three instances. The poaching of Indian elephants for their tusks was far lesser than what it was in the early ‘80s and ‘90s. Poaching of tigers for their parts too had reduced in the recent past. ‘Shahtoosh’, the fine fabric made from Tibetan Antelope wool went down and had re-emerged.

“Anti-poaching and anti-smuggling measures mean a constant vigil. I will not say that things are better or worse. But for certain things, certain times are better. Since crime is opportunistic, you have to keep yourself alert all the time,” noted Menon.

Strengthening law enforcement

When asked about what measures his organisation takes to strengthen law enforcement to prevent wildlife crime, Downes listed a number of measures, especially educating law enforcement officers.

“IFAW has a MoU with Interpol to share data, which is highly unusual for a non-profit,” he said.

“We also work with organisations that are outside the conservation arena especially on wildlife cybercrime. We educate all organisations that are selling the products online, as to what they should or should not allow on their sites,” he added.

For educating police personnel, airport workers and customs officials, IFAW initially prepared pocket booklets featuring the 25 most traded species in a particular area.

A recent measure has been to keep a veterinary service stationed at the airport. Anyone looking to implement the law at the airport has their mobile number. They can take a photo, send it to the veterinarians and ask whether that animal should be confiscated.

“Ït is a practical, low cost way,” said Downes.

Future challenges

According to Downes, unfolding events are throwing up newer challenges in matters of wildlife crime and trafficking and the global effort to prevent them.

One is climate change.

“A number of species, particularly marine ones like whales and fish stocks are now moving north, into areas that they previously did not inhabit. Right whales in North America are moving out of United States (US) waters to Canadian waters, where there is food. Canada does not have the same marine mammal protection that the US has,” Downes said.

Hence, the notion that a particular species or a population of animals is a national issue was less valid today, felt Downes.

But even as wildlife protection is going international, the current global political climate is one of hyper-nationalism.

“The current thinking is that certain information cannot leave a country because people will say these are our animals and these are our people who give money to support conservation work. This is creating problems in the sharing of data between countries, police and environmental organisations,” he said.

He warned: “We cannot move away from an international view of conservation and if we do, we will see populations decline because they are not national populations by and large”.

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