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Two Birds with One Stone: Disrupting the Illegal Wildlife Trade and Transnational Criminal Organizations

Andres Paciuc


  • Surveys the involvement of transnational criminal organizations in the illegal wildlife trade (IWT), highlighting how taking the IWT seriously can help undermine these dangerous criminal organizations.
  • Explores legislation on the issue, proposing that the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Reauthorization and Improvements Act is essential in the fight against wildlife trafficking.
Two Birds with One Stone: Disrupting the Illegal Wildlife Trade and Transnational Criminal Organizations
Geraint Rowland Photography via Getty Images

2020-2021 Endangered Species Law Student Writing Competition Second Place Winner.

Pablo Escobar’s personal zoo included four hippos. After the drug lord was killed in 1993, the Colombian government relocated all his exotic animals except for the four hippos, which were abandoned on the property grounds. Fast forward 28 years. Those four hippos multiplied to around 80 to 100. They now roam the Colombian Magdalena River Basin area, posing a potential threat for the region’s biodiversity. Escobar’s personal collection of exotic animals is part of the well-documented practice of drug cartel members owning exotic animals. These animals are symbols of wealth and power to transnational criminal organizations (TCOs); they even appear next to luxury cars and other ostentatious objects on drug cartel members’ social media posts.

TCOs are not interested in exotic animals solely as pets, however; TCOs are actively involved in the illegal wildlife trade (IWT) in various capacities. This article will survey the involvement of TCOs in the IWT, highlighting how taking the IWT seriously can help undermine these dangerous criminal organizations. It will then briefly explore legislation on the issue, proposing that the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Reauthorization and Improvements Act of 2020 S.4848, 116th Cong., 2019–2020, is essential in the fight against wildlife trafficking.

I. Illegal Wildlife Trade and Transnational Criminal Organizations

A. Background on Wildlife Trafficking

The terms wildlife trafficking and IWT are used interchangeably throughout the article; both are in accordance with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) definition: “Wildlife trafficking involves the illegal trade, smuggling, poaching, capture, or collection of endangered species, protected wildlife (including animals or plants that are subject to harvest quotas and regulated by permits), derivatives, or products thereof.” Wildlife trafficking accelerates and causes the extinction of various species. For example, the 2018 extinction of Spix’s macaws in the wild has been attributed to the exotic pet trade. Similarly, the fact that there are only two northern female white rhinos left in the wild “is due to decades of rampant poaching for rhino horn.” Alarmingly, poaching and trafficking have increased in recent years at an unsustainable rate: “[animals] are being killed faster than they can reproduce.” Not only does wildlife trafficking destroy global biodiversity, but it is also a lucrative criminal enterprise. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), wildlife trafficking generates as much as 23 billion U.S. dollars annually. The United States, China, and the European Union drive most of the demand for illegal wildlife.

The IWT involves three main areas: exotic pets, commercial products, and traditional Chinese medicine. First, animals that are trafficked for the exotic pet trade range from big cats to reptiles and birds. Many of these animals often die in transit as part of the international exotic pet trade. Second, commercial products include clothing and accessories that are derived from animals, such as fashion products made from tiger and reptile skin. The U.S. is the largest consumer of exotic pets and animal commercial products. Third, animal products that are used in traditional Chinese medicine are varied and plenty. Pangolin products, for example, “have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years” and they “are the most heavily trafficked wild mammal in the world.” As will be shown below, TCOs are involved in all these facets of wildlife trafficking.

B. Transnational Criminal Organizations and Wildlife Trafficking

While wildlife trafficking was once a relatively disorganized “crime of opportunity committed by individuals or small groups,” it has recently attracted “international criminal cartels that are well structured, highly organized, and capable of illegally moving large commercial volumes of wildlife and wildlife products.” The IWT is now a global crisis that is threatening “wildlife, the world’s economy, and global security.” The insatiable demand for illegal wildlife products, the potential to make a lot of money, and the transnational nature of the trade have attracted TCOs that are looking to diversify their typical trafficking portfolios of drugs, people, and weapons.

Wildlife trafficking is a criminal enterprise with many moving parts. TCOs are rarely involved in the actual hunting or capturing of wildlife. Rather, those crimes are committed by “poor, often indigenous hunters and/or farmers who live within range of target animals’ habitats in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” TCOs tend to enter the equation much later in the supply chain, usually controlling the smuggling and sale of the illegal wildlife to developed nations. For example, a “poacher in East Africa might only make $200 for an elephant, while the profits for the criminals further along the chain increase exponentially as they get closer to the buyer.” A kilogram of rhino horn, for example, can sell for between $65,000 and $70,000 in the black market. It is thus unsurprising that TCOs are attracted to the illegal wildlife trade.

Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), which are a subgroup of TCOs, play an essential role in wildlife trafficking. DTOs have entered this criminal enterprise due to their already established transnational logistical capabilities and the relatively low risk associated with the trade. Specifically, “[w]ildlife traffickers often face mere fines for illicit activities. They also face less scrutiny. And cartels have the money to break into and take control of the business.” DTOs will often capitalize on their already-existing drug and human smuggling routes, adding illegal wildlife to the mix as a subsidiary trade to maximize profits and their use of their routes.

Not only are DTOs involved in the IWT as purchasers, traffickers, and smugglers of exotic animals, but they also use the IWT as a way to launder other illegal proceeds, and as a vehicle for drug smuggling. First, members of drug cartels often purchase exotic pets. Leaders of DTOs have an affinity toward “charismatic animals that symbolize power and strength . . . such as lions, tigers. . . big snakes, monkeys and nice-looking birds.” These types of animals are often found in residences of the higher-ranking cartel members and law enforcement tends to struggle with what to do with these animals when the cartel members are captured or killed.

Second, DTOs are involved in the IWT through the international trafficking and selling of various species of wildlife. They “sell both living animals to private owners who want an exotic pet and dead animal parts that will be turned into luxury products.” In his 2015 testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the associate director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) emphasized that “organized crime rings operating within Mexico. . . continue to emerge as major players in trafficking endangered animal.” Similarly, Mexican drug cartels traffic totoabas––a giant species of fish that is only found in the Gulf of California in Mexico––to respond to the increasing Chinese demand for their swim bladders. The swim bladders of totoabas have recently become an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine because “the fish that the Chinese once used—the Chinese bahaba—has been poached to near extinction.” The swim bladders are smuggled by DTOs from the Mexican state of Baja California Norte into California and are then smuggled from the United States into China. This is a lucrative business for drug cartels because totoaba swim bladders sell for up to 50,000 U.S. dollars in black markets in China and other Asian countries. Mexican drug cartels also traffic timber and sea cucumbers into the United States.

Not only does illegal wildlife trafficking by TCOs accelerate the destruction of our planet’s biodiversity, but it also contributes to violence against humans. Cartels in Mexico often use violence to control the IWT: “the use of torture and even death to force entire rural communities to seek, log, and transport rosewood trees for sale in Asian markets” and the violent control of fishing communities in the Yucatan Peninsula are but a drop in the ocean of the drug cartel violence connected to the wildlife trade. Importantly, the involvement of drug cartels in wildlife trafficking is not confined to Mexican and Latin American DTOs. Asian DTOs, for example, smuggle rhino horns into the Yunnan province in China because they have the necessary networks and “know how” to successfully smuggle them from Africa into China.

Third, drug cartels use the animals themselves as a vehicle to smuggle drugs. American law enforcement has found “drugs surgically packed inside venomous snakes.” Additionally, “exotic pets have been stuffed with condoms full of cocaine and used to smuggle drugs into the U.S.”

Fourth, drug cartels use illegal wildlife trafficking and its proceeds to launder money. Colombian drug cartels, for example, have exchanged drug shipments for exotic animals in order to avoid the hassle that comes with exchanges of cash that needs to be subsequently laundered. Law enforcement officials in the United States and around the world are starting to realize the extent of drug cartels’ use of the IWT to launder drug money.

Terrorist groups have also benefitted from the IWT. Terrorists have been known to use the lucrative IWT as a revenue source to finance their activities. An analysis conducted by UNEP and Interpol found that “terror groups and armed militias [were involved] in wildlife crime as a means to fund other more violent activities.”

II. Legislative Responses to the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Recently, the U.S. government has recognized the importance of taking wildlife trafficking seriously, partly due to the involvement of TCOs and terrorist groups in the trade. This is not the first time that animal welfare issues have been leveraged to investigate and combat other crimes that society deems to be more serious. The strong associations between animal abuse, domestic violence, and psychological pathologies, for example, have led law enforcement to take animal abuse more seriously and have even resulted in new animal abuse legislation.

Similarly, the framing of the illegal wildlife trade as an issue of national security has resulted in an increased political will to combat the issue. In a statement at the 2018 London Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed the United States’ “commitment to defending wildlife” and to “fighting transnational organized crime, including wildlife trafficking.” This section will provide a brief overview of recent American legislation and executive orders intended to fight the illegal wildlife trade. Specifically, it will focus on the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016 (2016 END Act) because it is set to expire in October 2021.

A. Recent Anti-Wildlife Trafficking Legislation and Executive Orders

U.S. laws intended to combat wildlife crime have existed for more than 100 years. The body of laws on wildlife crime began with the Lacey Act of 1900 (16 U.S.C. §§ 3371–3378 and 18 U.S.C. §§ 42–43) and “expanded in scope through the Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman's Protective Act of 1967 (P.L. 92-219), the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (“ESA”) (P.L. 93-205),” and other laws and amendments. Although it is an international treaty, not a U.S. law, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) is worth noting because it is the “first and only treaty that attempts to regulate commercial wildlife trade.” Signed in 1973, nearly every nation has agreed to implement it. Under the ESA, the FWS is designated to implement and enforce CITES through various programs and incentives.

More recently, U.S. administrations have started to recognize the IWT as part of transnational organized crime through executive orders and legislation. The political will to combat wildlife trafficking has been largely bipartisan. In 2013, President Obama issued Executive Order 13648 to Establish a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking. In 2014, this task force announced a National Strategy for Combatting Wildlife Trafficking, which advanced three strategic priorities: (1) strengthening law enforcement, (2) reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife, and (3) expanding international cooperation and commitment. Similarly, President Trump’s Executive Order 13773 issued in 2017 concerning transnational criminal organizations included “wildlife” among “human trafficking, drugs, and weapons.”

The 2016 END Act, passed during the Obama administration, “established the Obama-era Task Force in law and directed the Secretary of State to submit to Congress an annual report that includes updates on the National Strategy.” The 2016 END Act helps to combat wildlife trafficking by “direct[ing] federal agencies to work to strengthen law enforcement, reduce demand, and build international cooperation and commitment.” It recognizes that a coordinated interagency approach is needed to effectively address wildlife trafficking. Specifically, it acknowledges the intersection of wildlife trafficking with other types of transnational crimes, highlighting “the ties of wildlife trafficking to broader forms of transnational organized criminal activities . . .and where applicable, [] focus[es] on those crimes in a coordinated, cross-cutting manner.”

One of the 2016 END Act’s unique features is that it “directs the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking to submit an annual strategic review and assessment of its work.” The most recent strategic review highlighted the Presidential Task Force’s successes and areas for improvement in the last year. The strategic report is lengthy and detailed, so it is impossible to include everything in this short article. From a financial standpoint, the U.S. government spent approximately $114 million directed at “local, bilateral, regional, and multilateral levels” to combat wildlife trafficking worldwide. Additionally, the task force’s work in combatting the IWT “is making a difference on the ground––at home and worldwide.” Coordination among various agencies involved in the fight against wildlife trafficking, such as the Department of Justice, the Department of State, FWS, and U.S. Agency for International Development, proved to be consistent and efficient. Similarly, U.S. agencies helped to train law enforcement units around the world. On the investigation and prosecution front, the United States had many successful prosecutions of those involved in the illegal wildlife trade and was involved in international operations that disrupted trafficking routes.

Despite all these successes, the 2020 Strategic Report still emphasized that “there is still much work to do.” For example, it highlighted that “[w]ildlife trafficking remains a serious transnational crime that threatens security, economic prosperity, the rule of law, long-standing conservation efforts, and human health.” It also identified that the involvement of the intelligence community is essential in the Task Force’s fight against IWT and made clear that many countries demonstrated poor implementation of CITES.

B. Reauthorizing END: The Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Reauthorization and Improvements Act of 2020

Even though the 2016 END Act was a step in the right direction, it is scheduled to expire on October 21, 2021. If the U.S. government is serious in its commitment to fight the IWT, then it should permanently authorize and expand the 2016 END Act by passing the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Reauthorization and Improvements Act of 2020 (2020 END Act). The 2020 END Act is a bipartisan bill with two main functions: it permanently authorizes the 2016 END Act and provides certain improvements. It improves the 2016 END Act by involving the intelligence community in counter wildlife trafficking measures. Additionally, the 2020 END Act recognizes the important role that technology plays in the wildlife trade by mandating that U.S. government agencies “pursue programs to expand the role of technology for anti-poaching and anti-trafficking efforts, in partnership with the private sector, academia, and nongovernmental organizations.”

The 2020 END Act should be enacted because the United States is the primary source of demand for many wildlife trafficking activities. Thus, the United States has an ethical responsibility to enact this new law because it helps alleviate the destructive wildlife trade that many of its citizens help to sustain. Further, the 2020 END Act is likely to improve the U.S. government’s efforts against wildlife trafficking by specifically addressing areas of improvement that have been identified in the strategic reports. With the increasing role of the internet in the IWT, its focus on technology is a targeted way to tackle online and dark web wildlife trafficking. Similarly, its mandate for the intelligence community’s cooperation in anti-wildlife trafficking activities improves the 2016 END Act by increasing institutional and investigative capabilities. Conservation experts agree that the United States and the world at large would benefit from this legislation passing.

While the proposed 2020 END Act is an improvement to the 2016 END Act, adding a provision mandating the use of financial rewards by FWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to strengthen the agencies’ investigative abilities would further improve the 2020 END Act. This is because the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently published a report examining the agencies’ use of financial rewards system for information on wildlife trafficking. The GOA recommended “that FWS and NOAA track reward information, FWS augment its reward policy to specify factors for agents to consider when developing proposed reward amounts, FWS and NOAA develop plans to communicate more reward information to the public, and FWS and NOAA review the effectiveness of their reward use.” Codifying these recommendations into law would further strengthen the proposed 2020 END Act.

As of now, the 2020 END Act has been read twice by the Senate and has been referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. In order to more effectively fight the IWT, the 2020 END Act should be passed. It would be a mistake to fail to pass a bill that can help conserve the globe’s biodiversity while simultaneously disrupting the strategy and pockets of violent TCOs.

III. Conclusion

Legislative solutions to the illegal wildlife trade are far from perfect, but they are an essential starting point required to mobilize the United States’ resources and a statement to its citizens and the world of what we regard as a worthy cause. For lack of a better cliché, combatting wildlife trafficking is like killing two birds with one stone: it helps save our globe’s biodiversity and disrupts the cash flows of some of the most dangerous criminal and terrorist groups in the world.