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Sub-Saharan Africa is a hotbed of illicit trade, UN says (Source: The East African)

Police display elephant tusks that were seized at Mahiga area in Laikipia West, Kenya.

The East African


In the shadowy realm of wildlife trafficking, Sub-Saharan Africa emerges as a hotbed for illicit trade routes and clandestine operations fueling the multi-billion-dollar industry.


Recent data contained in the World Wildlife Crime Report 2024 reveals this region accounts for a staggering 19 percent share of seizures of wildlife materials worldwide, underscoring its status as one of the most common sources of trafficked wildlife.

Between 2015 and 2021, the flow of illegal wildlife trade surged from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, constituting 44 percent of all recorded seizures.

Among the species groups targeted, pangolins bore the brunt with a staggering 32 percent share, highlighting the dire plight of these endangered creatures.

Additionally, elephants, carnivores and pangolins illegally traded as scales, meat, bodies and also as live specimens; ranked among the top five species groups seized during this period, exposing the breadth and depth of the crisis.

A recent report has unveiled Africa as a significant source of trafficked wildlife, accounting for 19 percent of global seizures of wildlife materials. Shockingly, all reported seizures on the continent were concentrated within the Sub-Saharan region, painting a stark picture of the region’s role in fueling this illicit trade.


The study, conducted in collaboration with the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) which includes key stakeholders like Cites, Interpol, the World Bank, and the World Customs Organisation, sheds light on the scale and scope of wildlife trafficking in the region.Initiated in response to a United Nations General Assembly resolution on Tackling Illegal Trafficking in Wildlife adopted in 2021, the report aims to bolster efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade and protect biodiversity. The report focuses on crimes associated with the illegal harvest and trade of wildlife species, in direct violation of national laws and international conventions.


Drawing on data from over 140,000 seizure records spanning 162 countries and territories, the report sheds light on the staggering scale of the illicit wildlife trade.From coral pieces to live specimens, medicines to meat, the illicit market spans a vast array of commodities, driven by insatiable demand and organised criminal networks.Between 2015 and 2021, Sub-Saharan Africa, along with South Asia, constituted the majority of global trade flows in wildlife trafficking, accounting for 44 percent of all recorded seizures where the shipping origin was specified. Among the species groups targeted, pangolins emerged as the most trafficked, comprising a staggering 32 percent of seizures during this period.

Elephants, carnivores, ranked among the top five species groups seized in both Africa and Asia, indicating the widespread nature of the problem across the two regions.


In Africa, pangolin, rhinoceros and elephant items together made up over 95 per cent of all seizures. In Asia, a large share of seizures involved timber followed by pangolin items.

In Europe, eels led followed by agarwood. In the Americas, timber (cedar) was by far the top taxonomic group using this metric (79 percent), followed by crocodilian and rosewoods (five percent and three percent respectively). In Oceania, the top taxonomic groups involved crocodilians, costus root, snakes, ginsengs and cacti in order of importance.

Coral, crocodilian and snake items were more prominent in the other three regions, with parrots and cockatoos prominent in the Americas and bivalve molluscs in Oceania. Plants also comprised a significant proportion of the records in Europe (e.g. aloes and cacti) and in Oceania such as costus root and ginseng.


The report highlights the devastating impact to biodiversity and ecosystem stability and resilience, undermining environmental, social and economic values.And underscores the urgent need for coordinated action to address wildlife trafficking, which poses a grave threat with over 40 percent of species recorded in seizures classified as threatened or Near Threatened, highlighting a looming conservation challenge.


Recent international police operations, such as project Disrupt led by Interpol and UNODC, have revealed the convergence of wildlife trafficking with other illicit activities, such as arms trafficking and drug smuggling, painting a troubling picture of interconnected criminal networks operating with impunity across borders and underscoring the complexity of the issue.


Tragically, the toll extends beyond the natural world, with wildlife rangers paying the ultimate price in their valiant efforts to protect wildlife and enforce conservation laws.

According to the report over 2,300 wildlife rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty between 2006 and 2021, with the majority (80 percent) of casualties occurring in Africa and Asia. As enforcement efforts intensify, traffickers adapt, leading to shifts in sourcing and trafficking routes to evade detection. This “balloon effect” characterised by changes in trafficking patterns in response to enforcement actions, underscores the need for a multifaceted approach to combat wildlife crime.


Both sourcing and routing shifts in response to enforcement action have been observed in elephant ivory trade and rhinoceros horn trade patterns as illegal traders find other ways around law enforcement. For example, from about 2018 there was a series of prosecutions of elephant ivory traffickers in East Africa that appears to have influenced illegal traders to switch to exporting ivory from the other side of the continent entirely.


Between 2010–2015, the weight of tusks in seizures made in or intercepted from Kenya and Tanzania dwarfed those connected with Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 2016–2021, the reverse was true. A World Bank survey of multilateral and bilateral donor agencies, foundations, United Nations programmes and international non-governmental organisations found that over $1.3 billion had been committed between January 2010 and June 2016 to combat illegal wildlife trade in Africa and Asia, approximately $190 million per year.


Donor funding was allocated to projects in 60 different countries and to various regional/multi-country and global projects. In total, 63 percent of the funds were committed to Africa ($833 million), 29 percent to Asia ($381 million), 6 percent to global programmes and initiatives ($81 million), and 2 percent to projects covering both Africa and Asia ($35 million). The top five recipient countries accounting for $328 million were Tanzania (8 percent), Democratic Republic of the Congo (5 percent), Mozambique (5 percent), Gabon (3 percent), and Bangladesh (3 percent).

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