Gangsters' crimes become green and global
Poor monitoring, relatively low risks and the prospects of big money have made the ivory trade a safe money maker for organized crime.
Mon, Nov 15, 2010 at 10:54 AM
BIG MONEY: Confiscated elephant tusks are guarded at the Kenyan wildlife offices in Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Khalil Senosi/AP)
Powerful international mafias are turning their sights more and more on expanding into ivory poaching, illegal fishing and other "green" crimes, police and experts say.
Because of poor monitoring, relatively low risks and the prospects of big money, the environment has become a safe target for crime gangs whose more traditional activities include crimes such as drug trafficking and extortion.
"The criminals that are engaged in this field are obviously very organized," said David Higgins, manager of Interpol's Environmental Crime Program, told AFP on the sidelines of the 79th Interpol General Assembly in Qatar.
Environment-related crime "crosses international borders and jurisdictions all the time," he said.
On Nov. 8, Interpol adopted a resolution unanimously pledging support to back the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and to fight environmental crime.
CITES secretary general John Scanlon said the resolution "sends a very strong message to those who seek to rob countries of their natural resources that the global law enforcement community recognizes that it must work together, led by Interpol, to bring these environmental criminals to justice."
According to Higgins, the resolution "shows how seriously the police community of the world takes environmental crime and we look forward to the ongoing support of our member countries in this area."
In its resolution, the global police organization said environmental crime "is not restricted by borders and involves organized crime which engages in other crime types, including murder, corruption, fraud and theft."
Supporters praise the resolution
John Sellar, a Scottish former police officer who led the fight against green crimes in CITES, had long hoped for such a resolution.
"People don't imagine the kind of money involved in wildlife trafficking. They still too often believe that local poachers go out and shoot whatever they can find, when in fact you have real networks of professional criminals getting organised to kill and ship wildlife on a massive scale," Sellar said.
"We were beginning to convince police and custom officials of the importance of environmental crimes, then 9/11 happened and we went back a decade," he said of the 2001 terror attacks on the United States.
"We're only now beginning to come back to their agendas."
Samuel Wasser, from the University of Washington in Seattle, has said wildlife trafficking was worth more than $20 billion annually, with seizures of ivory worth up to $20 million each year.
Organised crime gangs are investing fortunes in the knowledge the returns will be no less than those obtained by trafficking drugs — but with much less severe penalties in the case of failure.
"There is big money involved," Higgins said.
"You have groups and networks that are hiring helicopters to hunt down elephants and rhinos in southern Africa," he said. "It shows the level of profit they can make, if they are ready to make this kind of investment."
In 2005, the Australian Navy intercepted a European-flagged ship that was fishing for Patagonian toothfish, a critically endangered and rare species worth a fortune on the black market.
"The Australian navy pursued these people from the coast of Australia half way to South Africa and caught them. It indicates how much money is involved: these people are ready to go all the way down to the other side of the earth to harvest these fish," Higgins said.
"The bad guys are interested in environmental crime because they see that the eyes of the law enforcement community aren't on the ball," he said.
"They are focusing on human trafficking and drugs, so as a criminal group, you know that if you smuggle drugs across a border, there is a good chance you'll get caught, but if you're taking a couple of Pangolins (small scaly mammals) in Asia across a border, most law enforcement officers aren't looking for it."
Copyright 2010 AFP Global Edition
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