Illegal Trade in Wildlife and Timber Products Finances Criminal and Militia Groups, Threatening Security and Sustainable Development / New UNEP and INTERPOL Study Finds Environmental Crime Worth up to US$213 Billion Each Year

By United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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NAIROBI, Kenya, June 24, 2014/African Press Organization (APO)/ -- Global environmental crime, worth up to US$213 billion each year, is helping finance criminal, militia and terrorist groups and threatening the security and sustainable development of many nations, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL.

The Environmental Crime Crisis, a rapid response assessment, was released during the first United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), where action to tackle environmental crime is high on the agenda for hundreds of environment ministers, law enforcement officers, the judiciary and senior UN officials.

One terrorist group operating in East Africa is estimated to make between US$38 and US$56 million per year from the illegal trade in charcoal, says the report. In total, militia and terrorist groups in and around African nations with on-going conflicts may earn US$111 to US$289 million annually from their involvement in, and taxing of, the illegal or unregulated charcoal trade.

Other groups that benefit from the illegal trade in wildlife and timber products are also estimated to earn between US$4 and US$12.2 million each year from elephant ivory in the Central Africa sub-region, driving a significant reduction in elephant populations across Africa, the report says.

Combined estimates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), UNEP and INTERPOL place the monetary value of all environmental crime—which includes logging, poaching and trafficking of a wide range of animals, illegal fisheries, illegal mining and dumping of toxic waste—at between US$70 and US$213 billion each year. This compares to global Overseas Development Assistance of around US$135 billion.

The report points to an increased awareness of, and response to, the growing global threat, but calls for further concerted action and issues recommendations aimed at strengthening action against the organized criminal networks profiting from the trade.

“Beyond immediate environmental impacts, the illegal trade in natural resources is depriving developing economies of billions of dollars in lost revenues just to fill the pockets of criminals,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “Sustainable development, livelihoods, good governance and the rule of law are all being threatened, as significant sums of money are flowing to militias and terrorist groups.”

“This assessment reveals that, while there is growing awareness, the responses to date in terms of impact have not been commensurate with the scale and growth of the threat to wildlife and the environment. The scale of wildlife and forest crime in threat finance calls for much wider interventions and policy action,” he said.

“Building on the initiatives that took place this past year—from the CITES COP in Bangkok to the Botswana Elephant Summit and the French Government-hosted Summit for Peace and Security in Africa, to the UN Security Council resolutions (21/34 and 21/36) and the destruction of numerous stock piles of ivory around the world—it is imperative that 2014 becomes a year of concrete and decisive action,” he added.

Illegal Logging and Forest Crime

Illegal logging and forest crime has an estimated worth of US$30 to US$100 billion annually, or 10 to 30 per cent of the total global timber trade. An estimated 50 to 90 per cent of the wood in some individual tropical countries is suspected to come from illegal sources or has been logged illegally.

For pulp and paper production, networks of shell companies and plantations are used to funnel illegal timber through plantations, or to ship wood and pulp via legal plantations. These methods effectively bypass many current customs efforts to restrict the import of illegal tropical wood to the US and to the EU.

Based on data from EUROSTAT, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), the EU and the US annually import approximately

33.5 million tons of tropical wood in all its forms. It is estimated that 62 to 86 per cent of all suspected illegal tropical wood entering the EU and US arrives in the form of paper, pulp or wood chips.

In Africa, 90 per cent of wood consumed is used for woodfuel and charcoal, with an official charcoal production of 30.6 million tonnes in 2012, worth approximately US$9.2 to US$24.5 billion annually. The unregulated charcoal trade alone involves an annual revenue loss of at least US$1.9 billion to African countries.

For East, Central and West Africa, the net profits from dealing in and taxing unregulated, illicit or illegal charcoal combined is estimated at US$2.4 to US$9 billion, compared to the US$2.65 billion street-value worth of illegal drugs in the region.

With current trends in urbanization and the projected growth of over one billion additional people in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, the demand for charcoal is expected to triple at least in the coming three decades. This will generate severe impacts such as large-scale deforestation, pollution and subsequent health problems in slum areas.

The increased charcoal demand will considerably increase the purchasing power of non-state armed groups, including terrorist organizations, and accelerate emissions if left unchallenged.

Fauna and Flora

The illegal trade in fauna and flora (other than fisheries and timber) has been estimated by different sources to be worth US$7 to US$23 billion dollars annually.

The trade involves a wide range of species including insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish and mammals. It concerns both live and dead specimens and associated products, which are used for pharmaceuticals, food, pets, and ornamental or traditional medicinal purposes. All of these have a significant value not only on the black market, but to national economies if managed sustainably.

The report highlights poaching across many species, including tigers, elephants, rhinos, great apes and Saiga antelopes:

•    The number of elephants killed in Africa annually is in the range of 20,000 to 25,000 elephants per year out of a population of 420,000 to 650,000. For the forest elephant, the population declined by an estimated 62 per cent between 2002 and 2011. Poached African ivory may represent an end-user street value in Asia of US$165 to US$188 million of raw ivory, in addition to ivory from Asian sources.

•    94 per cent of rhino poaching takes place in Zimbabwe and South Africa, which have the largest remaining populations. Here, the involvement of organized syndicates has seen poaching rise from less than 50 in 2007 to over 1,000 in 2013. Rhino horn poached last year is valued at around US$63 to US$192 million.

•    Even conservative estimates suggest that the illegal trade in great apes is widespread. From 2005 to 2011, a minimum of 643 chimpanzees, 48 bonobos, 98 gorillas and 1,019 orangutans are estimated to have been lost from the wild through illegal activities. The real figure is more likely to be around 22,000 great apes lost to the wild over that period.

Threat financing

Wildlife and forest crime plays a serious role in threat finance to organized crime and non-state armed groups, including terrorist organizations. Ivory also provides income to militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic.

Ivory similarly provides funds to horse gangs operating in Sudan, Chad and Niger. Given the estimated elephant populations and the number of projected killed elephants within striking range of these militia groups, the annual income from ivory to militias in the entire sub-Saharan range is likely in the order of US$4 to US$12.2 million.

Illicit taxing of charcoal, commonly up to 30 per cent of its value, is conducted on a regular basis by organized criminals, militias and terrorist groups across Africa. Militias in DRC are estimated to make U$S14 to US$50 million annually on road taxes.

The primary income of the group operating in East Africa appears to be from informal taxation at roadblock checkpoints and ports. In one roadblock case, they have been able to make up to US$18 million per year from charcoal traffic in Somalia's Badhadhe District. The overall size of the illicit charcoal export from Somalia has been estimated at US$360–384 million per year, the group earning up to US$56 million of this.


“Transnational criminal organizations are making immense profits by exploiting our natural resources to fuel their illicit activities, threatening the stability and future development of some of the world's poorest regions," said INTERPOL's Executive Director of Police Services, Jean-Michel Louboutin.

“While there is growing awareness of the dangers posed by wildlife crime, it will require a dedicated and concerted international effort among law enforcement and partner organizations to effectively combat this threat to global security,” he added.

While more needs to be done, the scale and nature of the illegal trade in wildlife has been recognized and some successes have been scored.

One example of International enforcement collaboration is the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC)—which includes the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), UNODC, INTERPOL, the World Bank and the World Customs Organization (WCO). The ICCWC, along with increased collaboration with countries and agencies such as UNEP, has created a more effective structure to provide support to countries in the fields of policing, customs, prosecution and the judiciary.

These initiatives have revealed important and significant early results, including:

•    Poaching for Shahtoosh wool from Tibetan or Chiru antelopes caused an 80 to 90 per cent reduction, down from a million, in the Chiru antelope population in China in the 1990–2000s. This resulted in a significant environmental, police and military effort to prevent eradication. It was combined with the establishment of some of the largest protected areas in world.

•    Deforestation in Brazil's Amazon reached its lowest level in 2012 since monitoring of the forest began in 1988. It went down by up to 78 per cent, primarily as a result of a coordinated enforcement approach using satellite imagery and targeted police operations. This was supported by large-scale efforts through Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and other initiatives to strengthen the participatory processes of indigenous peoples, stakeholders and alternative livelihoods.

•    Improved intelligence sharing among agencies has enabled INTERPOL to support countries in bigger and more effective police operations, leading to larger seizures of illegal timber and wildlife products. In 2013, Operation Lead, under INTERPOL's Project LEAF, resulted in the seizure of 292,000 cubic meters of wood and wood products—equivalent to 19,500 truckloads and worth around US$40 million—in Costa Rica and Venezuela.

•    Operation Wildcat in East Africa involved wildlife enforcement officers, forest authorities, park rangers, police and customs officers from five countries ‒ Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe—and resulted in 240 kg of elephant ivory being seized and 660 arrests. On June 21, over four hundred rangers in Tanzania graduated as trackers to support further anti-poaching efforts.

•    An Indonesian case showed how money-laundering measures can lead to prosecutions for illegal logging. A 2012 UNODC training course involved Indonesian financial investigative and anti-corruption agencies (PPATK, KPK), ranging from the federal to the local levels. After the course, investigations into suspicious transactions led to the conviction of a timber smuggler. He received eight years' imprisonment, with evidence showing US$127 million passed through his accounts.

“Illegal timber activities not only ravage the Earth's fragile biosphere, but harm a region's economic, political, and social stability,” said David Higgins, head of INTERPOL's Environmental Security Unit. “A coordinated, international response is crucial to combat the criminal groups involved in forestry crime.”


Even given the above successes, the scale and coordination of efforts must be substantially increased and a widened effort implemented, the report says.

It issues twelve specific recommendations, including:

•    Acknowledge the multiple dimensions of environmental crime and its serious impact on the environment and sustainable development goals, and help support sharing of information.

•    Implement a coordinated UN and national approach to environmental crime by helping to coordinate efforts on environmental legislation and regulations, poverty alleviation and development support.

•    Support UNEP as the global environmental authority to address the serious and rising environmental impacts of environmental crime and to engage the relevant coordination mechanisms of the UN system to support countries and national, regional and international law enforcement agencies with relevant environmental information.

•    Encourage the donor community to recognize environmental crime as a serious threat to sustainable development and revenues, and to support national, regional and global efforts for the implementation and enforcement of targeted measures to curb the illegal trade.

•    Strengthen environmental legislation, compliance and awareness and call upon enforcement agencies and countries to reduce the role of the illicit trade in threat financing to non-state armed groups and terrorism.

•    Identify end-user markets and implement consumer awareness campaigns.

•    Strengthen institutional, legal and regulatory systems to further combat corruption and ensure that the legal trade is monitored and managed effectively.

Additional Information

The Environmental Crime Crisis can be downloaded from the following link:

About the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA)

UNEA is the highest-level UN body ever convened on the environment. It enjoys universal membership of all 193 UN member states as well as other stakeholder groups. With this wide reach into the legislative, financial and development arenas, the new body presents a ground-breaking platform for leadership on global environmental policy. UNEA boasts over 1200 participants, 170 national delegations, 80 ministers and 40 events during the five-day event from 23 to 27 June 2014 at UNEP's HQ in Nairobi, Kenya.