Cocaine of the sea, ‘epic failure’ and how following the money can limit illegal wildlife trade

Vaquita6_Olson_NOAA

Two vaquitas. Only ten more remain.

It has been called the ‘cocaine of the sea’ — the dried swim bladder of the totoaba fish, when smuggled from Mexico to China, sells for US$40-60,000 per kilo thanks to its supposed medicinal qualities. While the fish is critically endangered as a result, the situation of another animal that gets caught in totoaba nets is even more dire. The illicit trade has driven the world’s smallest marine mammal — a kind of porpoise called a vaquita — to almost certain extinction. At the last count, only 12 remained alive.

That’s despite around US$100 million being spent on efforts to save the species in the past ten years, according to wildlife crime investigator Andrea Crosta, who calls it “one of the most important, epic failures in conservation”. Crosta says scientists in boats in the Sea of Cortez have been watching the vaquita population plummet, while behind them on the beach totoaba traffickers went about their work unhindered.

“For years and years, they tried to tackle the vaquita/totoaba issue by focusing only at sea and only on the fishermen,” says Crosta. “The key to stopping totoaba illegal fishing and trafficking is on land, and more precisely by targeting the Chinese illegal traders residing in Mexico.”

“It is a criminal issue that must be put in the hands of criminal experts, not biologists like it has been done for years,” he told me. “I see the same problems around the world, where biologists and conservationists are still in charge of problems that are criminal in nature. We do need biologists of course, but in many cases, they should not run the show.”

Crosta — a co-founder of the Elephant Action League and creator of the wildlife crime whistleblowing initiative WildLeaks — says the cartels buying up the totoaba swim bladder and smuggling it to China are also involved in money laundering. “This means you can get them for other crimes, instead of using environmental law, which is too weak.”

The totoaba trade is just a small slice of a very lucrative pie — worldwide, the illegal wildlife trade is worth tens of billions of dollars. It is driving dozens of species towards extinction while enriching criminal syndicates. As a recent conference in London heard, a widespread ‘evidence failure’ is thwarting efforts to stop it. Crosta says the decline of the vaquita is a prime example.

Last month, the UK government announced a £3.5 million boost boost for the approach he advocates, with what it calls “the largest known project of its kind to crack down on financial crimes associated with the illegal wildlife trade”. Among other things, it will support investigations of money laundering and tax evasion to disrupt criminal networks and target high-ranking bosses.

On the same day, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, launched a ‘wildlife financial taskforce’. More than 30 banks and financial institutions have signed up and pledged to “not knowingly facilitate or tolerate financial flows that are derived from illegal wildlife trade and associated corruption”. They will share resources and intelligence in an effort to disrupt flows of money generated through illegal wildlife trade.

“We cannot afford for this fight to be a priority solely for conservationists anymore,” said Prince William, Duke of Cambridge in a speech to launch the initiative. “It is an issue for all of us. We need to take these criminals on from every direction. One particularly vital way is to follow the money.”

Crosta welcomes the news — with a caveat. “Everyone is repeating the mantra ‘follow the money’ but they don’t know what it means in concrete,” he told me. “And it’s very, very difficult to do it, as a lot is done in cash or through payments systems like WeChat or even cryptocurrencies. You need intelligence if you want to follow the money for real.”

But even the best intelligence seems unlikely to save the vaquita. The next fishing season for totoaba will begin in February or March when, once again, the Sea of Cortez will be full of illegal gillnets.

“I don’t think the last vaquitas can survive another fishing season like we saw this year,” says Crosta, “So it’s critical to act now on the Chinese traders in Mexico and stop the supply chain, from the sea to China. If, once again, they focus only on the fishermen we will lose the vaquita.”

As the species slips ever closer to extinction, Crosta says its story carries an important lesson for broader efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade. “Stop giving biologists and scientists the responsibility to tackle complex transnational criminal endeavours like wildlife trafficking,” he says. “It’s a criminal problem, with capital C.”

Photo credit: Paula Olson (NOAA) / Wikimedia Commons

‘Evidence failure’ blights fight against illegal wildlife trade

rhino-seahorse

In Vietnam, enough people want to consume rhino horn — and are willing to pay enough for it — that smugglers risk jail to bring the product into the country, while poachers in Africa risk their lives to kill the rhinos for their horns. South Africa lost more than a thousand rhinos to poaching last year alone.

With consumption driving the illegal trade, efforts to reduce demand clearly have a big role to play in saving the rhinos. So, on the face of it, it was a good thing that in recent years several major conservation organisations launched initiatives to reduce demand for rhino horn in Vietnam.

But when researchers assessed nine of these interventions last year they found that only one — by TRAFFIC — had been adequately designed. Did the others have any effect? It is impossible to say. They lacked the elements needed to achieve and demonstrate impacts.

This is just one example of an ‘evidence failure’ that researchers say is thwarting efforts to stop the illegal trade in wild animals and plants, leading to inadequate, unethical and counterproductive policies and other interventions. The upshot is that conservation efforts risk failing to protect endangered species, harming vulnerable people and wasting vast sums of money.

Speakers at a conference in London on 9 October highlighted several factors at play, from misinformation and lobbying to poor uptake of evidence by policymakers and a basic lack of adequate information. They want to see a more scientific approach to designing, monitoring and evaluating interventions intended to prevent wildlife crime, deter illicit trade or reduce demand for wildlife products.

“Is there an evidence failure in this area? I think there probably is,” said Ian Boyd, the Chief Scientific Adviser at the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. “And that’s something we need to address. We really are struggling to provide the evidence we need to move forward.”

Dominic Jermey, Director-General of the Zoological Society of London, said the lack of evidence prevents policymakers from knowing whether, for instance, overseas aid budgets should finance conservation because conservation supports development goals, or whether is militarisation of conservation is effective. “It is hard to make the case without evidence,” he said. “The answer is more or less ‘we don’t know’ because the evidence base is not there”.

“Monitoring and evaluation of impacts is absolutely crucial so lessons can be shared, so successful interventions can be scaled up and unsuccessful ones can be revised for better outcomes,” said Jermey. But it appears that conservationists are not collecting and sharing enough evidence of what works and why.

Janine Robinson of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent presented data that showed the scale of the gap. She and her colleagues screened hundreds of publications for evidence of the impacts of wildlife trade policies and practices. They found only 42 articles published between 1970 and 2015 that had evaluated impacts and used a study design that reliably attributed outcomes to actions.

“Overall, there was a low volume of empirical evidence on the impact of international wildlife trade actions, indicating that more concerted and explicit research is needed on impacts,” says the report’s lead author Samantha Cheng of Arizona State University.

The conference heard how the evidence gap leads to a focus on big mammals such as elephants, rhinos and tigers and not on endangered fish, reptiles and plants that are trafficked in far greater volumes. Tens of millions of seahorses are illegally traded each year, for example, and several of their species are now threatened with extinction. Scott Roberton, Director for Counter-Wildlife Trafficking at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia program, said priorities are being driven by subjective views, rather than data.

Such bias tends to focus attention on wildlife products from Africa and consumers in Asia. However, this ignores the growing importance of wildlife trafficking from Latin America and the rising roles of Europe as both a transit hub and a market for illicit products. There is also a disproportionate focus on tackling the supply side of the illegal trade. Boyd pointed out that, although demand drives the trade, only 6% of global funding spent between 2010 and 2016 to counter illegal wildlife trade had focused on reducing demand.

EJ Milner-Gulland — of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Illegal Wildlife Trade at the University of Oxford— told me the likely consequences of failing to address the evidence gaps are “no action, inappropriately targeted action — by place or species — or inadequate action”.

Some change is on the way. In plans announced this month by the UK Government, the Oxford Martin Programme will join a consortium of researchers, conservationists and behaviour change specialists to develop evidence of how best to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products. Diogo Veríssimo, a researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme, says that because the consortium will bring together practitioners and academics it “has the potential to both improve technical standards and be meaningful in terms of impact on the ground.”

These efforts and more will be needed to make a dent on an illegal trade that is worth 23 billion dollars a year and involves a huge variety of species, from rhinos and seahorses to orchids and rosewood trees, from freshwater turtles and sungazer lizards to pangolins and helmeted hornbills. For many of these species, time is running out. That much is evident.

Follow the experts on Twitter

Ian Boyd (@DefraChiefScien); Dominic Jermey (@DomJermey); Janine Robinson (@JanineERob); Samantha Cheng (@pilesofsquid); Scott Roberton (@owstons‏); EJ Milner-Gulland (@EJMilnerGulland); Diogo Veríssimo (@verissimodiogo).

References

Cheng, S.H. et al. 2017. Mapping the evidence: Effectiveness of international wildlife trade practices and policies. Conservation International Working Paper. January 2017 [Read online]

Milner-Gulland, E.J. et al. 2018. Evidence to Action: Research to Address Illegal Wildlife Trade. Briefing note for policy-makers and practitioners. DOI:  10.31235/osf.io/35ndz [Read online]

Olmedo, A. et al. 2017. Evaluating the design of behavior change interventions: A case study of rhino horn in Vietnam. Conservation Letters. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12365 [Read online]

Veríssimo, D. & Wan, A.K.Y. 2018. Characterizing efforts to reduce consumer demand for wildlife products. Conservation Biology. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13227 [Read online]

Photo credits

White rhinoceros — Karl Stromayer / Wikimedia Commons; Black-Sea seahorse — Florin Dumitrescu / Wikimedia Commons