CITES Secretary-General's remarks at the World Economic Forum - Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2017 - Dalian, China

Updated on 12 January 2021

World Economic Forum 

Annual Meeting of the New Champions 2017 

Dalian, China, 28 June 

‘Stemming the Surge in Illegal Wildlife Trade’ 

John E. Scanlon, Secretary-General, CITES 

(watch the recorded live speech online)

Over recent years we have been experiencing a surge in illegal trade in wildlife.

This illegal trade in wildlife is estimated to be worth up to USD 20 billion a year, excluding fisheries and timber, ranking it amongst other serious crimes, such as illicit trafficking in arms, narcotics and humans.

It is being driven by transnational organised criminal gangs and in some cases rebel militia. They have targeted high value wildlife and are poaching and smuggling at an industrial scale, which is decimating wildlife populations.

These criminals are targeting wildlife because there is a demand for various wildlife products and they have been able to make high profits at a relatively low risk. This profit to risk equation is thankfully changing, and changing fast, through the adoption of stronger laws and better enforcement, demand reduction strategies, engaging with local communities and the private sector, and through the deployment of modern technology. 

There are international rules governing wildlife trade that are set by CITES, an international legally binding agreement adopted in Washington DC in 1973. CITES sets the rules that the criminals try and evade.

The first ever UN World Wildlife Crime Report released last year estimates products derived from over 7,000 species of wild animals and plants are being illegally traded, across all regions. It affects products derived from animals and plants that cannot be traded commercially under CITES rules, such as elephant ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts. It also affects animals and plants that can be legally traded under CITES strict trade rules, such as python skins, corals, and rosewood timber, but where people do not first obtain the permits to certify legality and sustainability.

These criminal groups are not just decimating wildlife – they are destroying the wildlife assets that can support sustainable development. They are also corrupting local officials, recruiting and arming local poachers, injuring and killing rangers and creating instability. They are depriving local communities of the ability to develop their own natural resources, such as for wildlife based tourism or to benefit from legal trade in certain wildlife products that can be sustainably used for food, fashion and medicine, which can lift communities from poverty. Rather this illegal trade is putting whole communities into a poverty spiral.

Let me share a few examples with you to give a sense of the scale of this illegal trade involving transnational organized criminal gangs:

  • it is estimated that in the order of 100,000 African elephants were slaughtered for their ivory over a period of just three years. In some regions the scale of the killing has put local populations at risk of extinction, such as in Central Africa. An estimated 400,000 African, and 50,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. Late last year China, a Party to CITES since 1981, announced a bold decision to close all of its domestic ivory markets in support of the fight against illegal trade in ivory.
  • the poaching of the African rhino for its horn was pretty much under control up until 2006, when only 60 animals were poached across Africa. Since that time we have seen a rapid escalation in the poaching of the animals for their horn, reaching over 1,300 animals last year. An estimated 25,000 rhinos remain in the wild Africa, including the last remaining Northern White male rhino on the planet, which is now under armed guard 24 hours a day, and 3,500 in Asia.
  • a lesser known animal, the small anteater known as the pangolin, has possibly suffered the most, with the animal being illegally killed for its meat and scales in the 100’s of thousands, with recent seizures made of 10 tonnes of pangolins meat – the equivalent of 180 of people my weight, and most recently of 7 tonnes of pangolin scales.
  • by value, it is rosewood, being illegally harvested for its timber, that is the most heavily illegally traded wildlife product. In Thailand's Thap Lan National Park the largest remaining rosewood tree is now wrapped in chains for its own protection. This is a great shame as rosewood is a species that could be legally harvested and traded under CITES rules, and if done sustainably it could support local industries and jobs.
  • the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita, is now one of the most endangered animals on the planet, with only 30 left, as it is incidentally captured and killed as people illegally take the endangered totoaba fish for its bladder.

I could go on but I think you get the picture. Some of our most magnificent wildlife is facing extinction at the hands of transnational criminals who are stealing wildlife from local communities and countries at industrial scale, with no regard for wildlife or people.

But how do you stop them? It is not easy – in fact it is really hard. We need a collective effort to tackle demand and supply. We must work across the entire illegal wildlife chain, and we need to bring on board the agencies at international and national level that are mandated, trained and resourced to deal with transnational crimes.

This is exactly what we are doing at the international level through the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). INTERPOL, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Customs Organisation have joined this fight and are deploying the same tools and techniques used to combat other serious international crimes in the fight against wildlife crimes.

Yet even with all of the enforcement agencies on board and the many other measures underway we will not succeed unless we also have local communities and the private sector with us as well.

Every year there are over 500 million shipping containers moving across the globe and there are 1.2 billion tourist arrivals, and every day there are 100,000 flights taking off. Modern transport allows us to move products to the four corners of the earth – whether illegally or legally sourced.

Regrettably, transnational criminal gangs are using legitimate forms of air, land and sea transport to covertly transport their contraband. Thanks to an extraordinary initiative of HRH the Duke of Cambridge we are working with the private carriers, airlines, couriers and shipping companies and others. Through signing a declaration known as The Buckingham Palace Declaration they are committing to helping combat these serious crimes – through adopting a zero tolerance policy, informing and educating staff and customers, and serving as eyes and ears for customs and police.

Well over 50 companies and organisations have now signed up to this Declaration, including Emirates Airlines, with the cause being personally championed by its President Sir Tim Clark.

And just last month, I reached out to the travel and tourism sector at the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Global Summit to join us in this fight, in the same way as we reached out to the transport sector, but with one important difference.

Wildlife based tourism relies upon nature’s assets – the wild animals and plants. Experience has shown that the best way to maintain these assets is to actively engage with local communities, generate local employment and wealth. By doing so they will be the best protectors of wildlife. I witnessed this for myself during a recent trip to the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya.

And, Ladies and Gentlemen, if we are too win this fight we must deploy best modern technology.

The challenges for officials of knowing where wildlife, rangers and poachers are across vast landscapes and seascapes, for Customs in clearing hundreds of millions of containers, travelers and packages, for prosecutors in securing convictions, and for inspectors in monitoring multiple on-ground and on-line wildlife markets is massive. The sheer scale of the exercise is daunting. Knowing where to deploy limited enforcement resources is a huge challenge and finding contraband can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Customs, police and rangers all need good intelligence on where to be and what to look for and prosecutors need hard evidence to secure convictions.

If deployed well, modern technology can and will be a game changer. It does, however, first require well trained and remunerated officials, including rangers, customs and police, who are able to use such technologies to support their enforcement efforts.

There are many technologies that are available or in development. It’s not for me to support particular products, but I can share examples of where technology is being deployed to help fight wildlife crime. If you look at this slide you will see pictures drones for aerial surveillance, scanners for shipping containers, old mobile phones for listening to the forest, and best of all, natures technology, the dog and its amazing sense of smell. More specifically:

  • determining the age and origin of specimens in trade can be critical to determine legality. The use of modern forensics, especially DNA and isotope technology, allows us to do this. For example, we can now from a thumbnail of ivory determine its age and origin, which is invaluable evidence in prosecutions. DNA data bases are being developed allowing rapid determination of the origin of specimens in illegal trade, such as rhino horn and ivory, allowing one to better know where to deploy the enforcement effort. It can be and is being applied to many other species in trade as well, including timber species.
  • the proper identification of wildlife species and parts and derivatives can be a challenge. While DNA testing is increasingly available, it is not always feasible. In addition to DNA testing, we can now identify animals and plants, including their parts and derivatives, through the use of Apps and other technologies, including nano technology and the use of holograms, to separate legal from illegally traded specimens, which is invaluable for Customs officers.
  • knowing where and when to deploy enforcement efforts is critical. Through the use of surveillance technology we can see, hear, and track wildlife, people and vehicles in real time – in the air, on the land, on and below the surface of the water, allowing us to know the location of wildlife, as well as the rangers and poachers both at sea and on land. We are even seeing elephant ivory and turtle eggs being fitted with GPS systems to track them in illegal trade.
  • related technology is now also able to aggregate multiple sources of data and information in real time to support intelligence led enforcement both on land and at sea. I have been fortunate to see such technologies successfully deployed first hand at the Lewa Conservancy in Kenya and through an initiative near Kruger in South Africa where they have dramatically reduced the levels of poaching – in both cases with no rhino being poached in three years, while also providing security for rangers and local communities.
  • surveillance also touches the Internet where well-crafted programmes are detecting illegally sourced wildlife being offered for sale on-line, including through the dark web.
  • citizens want to play a part and can be eyes and ears for enforcement authorities. Citizens can now use an App to report illegal trade as they see it.
  • paper permitting under CITES is open to corruption and fraud. We are now moving towards electronic permitting, which can help eliminate corruption and fraud, and when extended to Customs to Customs exchanges also facilitates the detection of illegal trade. We are promoting eCITES to fully automate the CITES business and control processes and to promote end-to-end transparency.

And much of this technology has multiple applications, in particular for addressing wider personal security concerns.

But many of these technologies are still raw or in their infancy. There is much more that can be done. We are encouraging further investment into new technologies, including through an Impact Investment Fund. We have even drawn up what such a Fund might look like!

Ladies and gentleman, today, we reach out to you, as business people, investors and entrepreneurs to join us in the fight against illegal trade in wildlife. It is the right thing to do - and if you have kids, they will love you for it! Your efforts will not only help protect our most precious wildlife but may also realize a commercial return.

For the fashion, food, furniture, musical instrument and pharmaceutical industries you will be protecting your own legal supply chain of raw materials. For the travel and tourism sector you are protecting the very assets that underpin wildlife based tourism. For the transport sector you are enhancing your brand and protecting your staff and customers from the threat of injury and disease. For the technology sector and investors you can commercialize new technologies that will save wildlife and people, as well as realize a good return.

We need ‘all hands on deck’ if we are to win this fight and be sure our planet’s magnificent wild animals and plants can survive in the wild, both for its own sake and to support the world’s efforts to achieve Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. You all have a critical role to play in this collective endeavor.

Please join us in this fight!



You can also watch it here on the website of the World Economic Forum and the live interview on Facebook.

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