Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation Call to Action: Suggestions for Priorities

This week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened a roundtable discussion on the illegal wildlife trade entitled Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action. [Read her remarks.] A number of new programs were announced. If I were briefing the Secretary on what these programs might prioritize as they move toward implementation, I would offer some observations and suggestions.

The Problem is Local

  • Wildlife kingpins rely on government complicity or complacency to move their product out of the field and, more importantly, to move it across borders and through airports and container ports.
  • Key government officials in wildlife source and demand (S&D) countries are often complicit in the illegal wildlife trade.
  • The media in S&D countries are often government owned or controlled, limiting their ability to take on international crimes, especially those involving corruption.
  • Domestic NGOs (if they are permitted to operate) likewise find it difficult to expose this criminality.
  • International NGOs are often limited in their ability to push for legal reform or criminal investigations in S&D countries, not because laws restrict them but because they have too much at stake. Many international NGOs have offices, investments, and large wildlife-related projects in problem countries. This makes them vulnerable to eviction if they press too hard on crime, especially corruption. Wildlife department officials may even control the work visas of foreign NGO employees.

Action to Take

If I could offer only one suggestion on how to reduce wildlife crime, it would be this: Look to the grass roots. In most countries where wildlife trafficking is a problem, there is substantial support among the citizenry for conservation but little ability to express it owing to government control of both press and NGOs. Finding ways to empower local media and NGOs is critical to achieving domestic buy-in and real reform.

Depiction of notorious wildlife dealer Anson Wong by Jillian Tamaki. Caught with a suitcase full of snakes in 2010, public exposure of this kingpin’s criminal enterprise compelled Malaysia’s authorities to arrest and charge him under new wildlife smuggling laws.

Take the case of Anson Wong, the notorious Malaysian wildlife trafficker. For years Wong offered his global customers every manner of endangered species, from snow leopard pelts and rhino horn to rare tortoises and birds. Even after his 1998 arrest and imprisonment in the United States, Wong operated without criticism from his own government and without exposure by local or international NGOs in Malaysia. Things changed after I wrote about Wong in a book called The Lizard King and especially in a 2010 story for National Geographic. Armed with this “outside” material, local NGOs, domestic media, and international NGOs seized upon the story and used it to further expose Wong’s criminal enterprise and to demand and achieve legislative reform.

Wong was arrested for wildlife smuggling in 2010 and prosecuted under one of Malaysia’s new laws. He was sentenced to five years in prison, a record for a major wildlife trafficker in Malaysia (although he was released early, in February 2012). Reforms continue in Malaysia, as does pressure from local NGOs and media. Just this week, Malaysia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Datuk Seri Douglas Uggah Embas confirmed that officers in Malaysia’s wildlife department, Perhilitan, are now transferred every three years as part of reforms instituted to avoid corruption. “We realise that there are Perhilitan officers who may have been involved in Wong’s operations,” he said.

Accuracy Not Advocacy

If I could also offer a second suggestion, it would be to the media in general, and it would be to pursue accuracy not advocacy. Accurate storytelling that treats wildlife trafficking as a crime rather than as heartstrings-pulling anecdote or as advocacy can be the grease that helps the other gears in the engine of environmental protection engage.

Ivory: A Unique Circumstance With a Unique Opportunity

I’ve just published a story on the ivory trade for National Geographic, and because its lessons are on my mind, I offer a final thought on the ivory trade. It is widely believed that China is the main driver of the ivory trade, but “China” is an amorphous word. It is the Chinese government that is in the ivory business. The Chinese government, through its company China National Arts and Crafts Group Corporation (CNACG), aka Goalmark, is the world’s largest ivory purchaser, carver, and retailer. It purchased two-thirds (40 tonnes) of the roughly 62 tonnes of ivory sold at auction to China in 2008, and it controlled the import price on the remaining 20 tonnes sold to the three other Chinese bidders.

The Chinese government is expanding its ivory consuming capacity. In 2009, it built China’s largest ivory carving factory. It is training college-age students to take up the craft and it operates ivory retail outlets in China and Hong Kong. There are only five years left on a nine-year moratorium on ivory sales agreed to by the four southern African nations that participated in the 2008 ivory auction. Tanzania, which did not participate, wants to sell its ivory even sooner. China wants to buy this ivory, and more. Earlier this year, China’s CITES representative pronounced the ivory ban a failure and proposed that China not only be allowed to buy ivory from elephants that died of natural causes but also that it be allowed to buy ivory from elephants that had been poached.

Poached ivory has always been off limits to ivory sales because of the likelihood that ivory trafficking syndicates would simply launder their kill through government storerooms directly to illegal ivory buyers. Storerooms are plundered already, but China’s proposal would remove yet another layer of protection from the elephant.

Chinese ivory carving is big business involving a small number of individuals—perhaps a few hundred, based on my observations—only about a dozen of whom are recognized national master carvers. Sadly, twelve is also the number of Kenyan rangers killed already this year to protect wildlife, according to a presentation by Kenya’s Ambassador Elkanah Odembo during Secretary Clinton’s roundtable this week.

This 2007 photo in Chad’s Zakouma National Park shows an anti-poaching team returning from patrol with an elephant tusk. African elephant-range countries are struggling to cope with increasingly aggressive and heavily armed poachers in wildlife sanctuaries. NGS photo by Michael Nichols.

Africa has welcomed vast foreign direct investment from China. It would seem appropriate, given the costs, to ask China for an investment in Africa’s wildlife and rangers, too. The United States might well facilitate that discussion, but lasting solutions must happen at the grass roots, and that means in Africa.

China is not alone in having an ivory craft history, but it is alone in wanting so fervently to revive and expand it. The world no longer “tickles the ivories” when it plays the piano, no longer shoots ivory billiard balls, no longer boasts ivory bracelets and necklaces in high society. In recent weeks wildlife and police officials have raided ivory operations in the Philippines and Italy in an effort to clamp down on ivory trading there. Police action can stop illegal ivory trading in many countries where it is a problem, but China is different. As long as the Chinese government is in the business of expanding the ivory trade, ivory-related crime will flourish.



Bryan Christy is an investigative journalist and author who has spent years focused on environmental crimes. A Fulbright Scholar, he attended Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University Graduate School, University of Michigan Law School, and the University of Tokyo Law School. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., including in the Executive Office of the President. Mr. Christy is the author of The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers. In researching that book, he was bitten between the eyes by a blood python, chased by a mother alligator, sprayed by a bird-eating tarantula, and ejaculated on by a Bengal tiger. His article, "The Kingpin", exposing wildlife trader Anson Wong, appeared in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic. Visit his website for updates about his work. Photo by John Heminway