Image Source: Pexels
August 2017
REGION: East Asia and the Pacific

In the article, Corruption and Wildlife Trafficking: Three Case Studies Involving Asia, Wyatt et al. examine the literature to explain the role of corruption in wildlife trafficking. With detailed descriptions of the trade of ivory, reptile skins, and live reptiles from, through, or to Asia, the authors argue that wildlife trafficking is enabled by corruption, defined as “any person (public official or private individual) who abuses their position to benefit themselves, people in their networks, their community or their organization,” both at the individual and structural level.

The Role of Corruption

The authors first discuss how macro-level corruption in various social structures plays a role in wildlife trafficking. Specifically, within the criminal justice system, not only are individual law enforcement officers able to facilitate wildlife trafficking, but prosecutors and judges are also important actors in this process. For example, the high acquittal rates and lenient sentences typical of wildlife trafficking cases are argued to be a result of judicial discretion. Moreover, the authors discuss cases where prosecutions have failed because of evidence tampering, or because the case is not further processed after a suspect is granted bail.

While the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) requires Parties to adopt national legislation and comply with convention mandates, the authors point out the need for legislation that specifically addresses forms of corruption as they relate to wildlife trafficking. Additionally, the authors argue that in some cases legislatures “manipulate or maintain legislation that does not address wildlife trafficking and/or corruption.” Research has found that “some public officials maintain a personal or financial interest in the wildlife trade, and therefore [may] influence decisions, particularly in regard to legislation, through bribery.” The authors further suggest that laws will only deter individuals from wildlife trafficking when the penalties are proportionate to the crimes, and that societies with weak governance will have increased risks of systemic corruption. Wyatt and colleagues stress that relevant national laws, conventions, institutions, and programs must tackle both corruption and organized crime as part of their wildlife trafficking prevention efforts.

Based on their case studies, the authors conclude that corruption plays a key role in the illegal wildlife trade, but in diverse forms across specific wildlife products and across the different phases of trafficking. Common opportunities for corruption include forged or fraudulent permits; misdeclarations of species information on records, e.g., wild-caught versus captive-bred, the number of species, or country of origin; and bribery at any point in the trafficking chain to enable smuggling or permit abuse. The authors argue that wildlife trafficking is embedded within corrupt structures and that “when the rule of law, political economy and societal/cultural attitudes fail to value [wildlife] or recognize…that wildlife crime is a serious crime, wildlife trafficking and other wildlife crimes continue largely unchallenged.”

Case Study #1: Ivory

The literature identifies specific corrupt acts in the poaching, transporting, and selling of ivory, as well as factors that motivate or enable each of these activities. Ranger misconduct, for example, has often been found in the form of stealing confiscated ivory to sell, and in accepting bribes to either aid or turn a blind eye on poachers. Ranger misconduct is believed to stem from both individual characteristics, as well as organizational and structural factors including inadequate training and supervision, limited equipment, and low wages. The authors suggest that a lack of funding leads to low wages for rangers, which leads them to engage in corrupt acts to supplement their income. Moreover, the low wages also result in a lack of morale among rangers, which also has a negative impact on conservation efforts.

Corruption in ivory transportation is also evident. One study found that up to $30,000 a day is paid in bribes to Vietnam-China border officials to allow illegal ivory to cross borders. Similar incidents have also been documented among Chinese and Tanzanian naval officers and personnel who accepted bribes to transport ivory across borders. Furthermore, a network of freight and shipping agents was discovered to have been fraudulently completing paperwork and bribing customs officials to transport ivory within plastic waste, timber, and agricultural products. Overall, “lax controls and the willingness of officials to take bribes” were the key factors enabling the smuggling of ivory.

Corruption and civil war were identified as factors facilitating unregulated ivory markets that lack international oversight. Moreover, un-licensed dealers often purchase fraudulent registration certificates and licences, allowing them to sell illegal ivory less conspicuously. The authors argue that a lack of law enforcement and governmental control allows for lucrative ivory markets.

Case Study #2: Reptile (Snake) Skins

While this case study broadly covers reptile skins in general, most of the discussion is in regard to snake skins specifically. The snake skin trade is legal when there is documentation of the snake’s origin, as well as proper licenses and permits. The authors assert that such a system is susceptible to corruption through document fraud, in which the species, number, or origin of snakes may be misdeclared, or through the forging of licenses and permits. This allows businesses to exceed quotas and produce more skins than permitted. The processing and transportation of skins also contain many opportunities for corruption. Specifically, restrictions on raw skin exports can lead to complex shipping systems where the skins are frequently shipped back and forth between multiple countries in various stages of processing. Because each shipment provides opportunities for laundering, there is ample opportunity for illegally sourced skins to make their way into legal shipments. The authors further argue that exporters often falsify their distribution records in order to export skins beyond their legal allowance. Again, the authors suggest that these corrupt acts are facilitated by inadequate monitoring and law enforcement.

Case Study #3: Live Reptiles

While less research exists for the trade of live reptiles, misdeclarations of breeding information have been reported. Since captive bred species are typically transported without scrutiny, the authors suggest that corruption likely takes place “in the form of false/fraudulent or forged documentation” to enable the laundering of wild caught species. Additionally, cases of fraudulent packaging descriptions for courier service or traveling with live reptiles through airports have also been reported, as have cases of illegal species being mixed with legal species. The authors also note that because countries have diverse reptile-shipping regulations, the policing of illegal transportation is challenging due to the complex mix of permit and license requirements.

Because the laundering of these species typically occurs at the breeding or capture stage of trafficking, it is argued that little corruption will occur in later stages, since the once-illegal species becomes a legal commodity. Still, many legitimate businesses have been reported as selling illegal species. Many illegal sales take place online, which has resulted in legislation prohibiting online platforms from advertising illegal wildlife and a number of other controls. Regardless, a recent report stated that illegal wildlife trading was a common occurrence on popular shopping websites.


NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

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