Posted on 27 May 2020
By the end of this week, it will be five months since a cluster of cases of pneumonia were reported in Wuhan and a novel coronavirus was identified. While over 350 000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 have been reported, data on excess mortality suggests that the true figure is likely to be significantly higher. Aside from the devastating death toll, however, and the huge economic shock that its response has engendered, the pandemic has had a considerable impact on organized crime around the world, creating both obstacles and opportunities for criminal actors everywhere.
Last week’s newsletter took readers on a virtual tour of the globe, exploring the interactions between organized crime and the COVID-19 pandemic from Asia to Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Middle East. We explored the resilience of the drug trade in East and Southeast Asia, cyberattacks in the United Kingdom, the growing black market for cigarettes in Argentina, counterfeit medicine in a number of African countries, and looting of artefacts in North Africa and the Middle East. However, stories on prison systems and police abuse demonstrate that the reverberations of the virus are significantly more far-reaching than simply its impacts on criminal markets.
Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, much focus has been on the impact of the virus on the global drugs trade. The GI-TOC recently published a policy brief on that very topic, titled ‘Crisis and opportunity: Impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on illicit drug markets’. Analysis of the ramifications of the pandemic on environmental crime has thus far been far less prominent. This week, the #CovidCrimeWatch newsletter focuses on two bedrocks of global environmental crime: illegal wildlife trade (IWT) and illegal logging. Accompanying this newsletter, the GI-TOC has also published a series of environmental-crime-related blog pieces that look at the role of governance and regulation, more pragmatic ways of responding to environmental crime issues, and China’s changing legislative stance on COVID-19 and wildlife regulations.
WILDLIFE CRIME: RISE OR FALL?
The global trade in illegal wildlife products comprises three broad dimensions. The first is the illegal poaching of wildlife; the second is the sale and distribution, often cross-border, of the wildlife products; and the third is demand for the illegal products. Starting with the latter, a report by the Wildlife Justice Commission found that the sudden dearth in Chinese customers, by far the largest customer base for illegal wildlife products, as a result of the travel restrictions, has significantly reduced demand in Cambodia and Laos. It has also made it more challenging for those transporting live animals or eggs to carry them on their person, as they may have done previously. Therefore, in terms of trafficking illegal wildlife products, it appears as though the trade has been affected by many of the same impediments faced by other illicit economies. As air travel has been restricted and border controls strengthened, it has been more difficult for criminal actors involved in the trade to export their illegal products.
Although it is true that the coronavirus pandemic has created problems for the latter stages of the illegal wildlife supply chains, there have been mixed reports on the trends in illegal activity in source countries. Despite reports from a number of African countries, such as Botswana and South Africa, that there has been a rise in poaching incidents, in particular of rhinos, it is unclear whether overall there has in fact been an increase. South Africa’s Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has reported a ‘significant decline’ in rhino poaching since lockdown measures were introduced in the country. April saw the fewest number of rhinos poached in the Kruger National Park in a single month since September 2013.
One of the reasons posited for the decline in rhino poaching is the disruption, mentioned above, to the latter stages of the supply chain. Indeed, the minister claimed that ‘the closure of our borders and the complete shutdown of international air travel removed the key way that syndicates used to supply horn to transit and consumer countries’. Nevertheless, a distinction must be made between high-value trafficking, such as rhino horns or elephant ivory, and bushmeat poaching, as the two forms of criminal activity have different dynamics. While high-value poaching is likely to be falling, bushmeat poaching may very well be on the rise, and specifically subsistence poaching.
Reports in India suggest that rhino poachers have taken the opportunity to intensify their activity, roaming around national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. One factor that is claimed to have facilitated this increased activity is the drastic reduction in tip-offs about poaching activity from locals, upon which officials rely. However, these so-called tip-offs are for the most part from established informant networks, which typically still exist. Other factors include the animals’ movement closer to places where there is human habitation, thereby making them more vulnerable to poachers, as a result of the country’s lockdown and a major decline in volumes of traffic on the motorway near the Kaziranga National Park.
It is expected that the megafauna we normally associate with the IWT, such as rhinos and elephants, are likely to experience a fall in poaching incidents, for the reasons outlined above, namely the disruption to the products’ distribution to consumer markets. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, a number of countries were experiencing a decline in poaching incidents and there were reports of stockpiling. Therefore, the inability to move products easily will likely exacerbate this.
The abalone black market in South Africa is also experiencing repercussions from the coronavirus pandemic. The illegal abalone market is a complex network involving the poaching of the indigenous, highly endangered shellfish in South Africa and transporting the product to predominantly China and Hong Kong. As a result of China’s ban on imported wildlife products, this black market in Africa’s most unequal country has been brought to a halt, with local prices more than halving.
However, many individuals who resort to the illegal poaching of abalones are driven by economic desperation, and with lockdown restrictions exacerbating the financial difficulties faced by many South Africans, it is highly likely that poaching will resume, and even increase, fairly soon. This may be particularly true in well-established networks characterized by high levels of trust between actors, where people can stockpile themselves, dry the abalone and look to sell the products later on, albeit at a potentially lower price. Although it may arguably be less in the public eye than other forms of environmental crime in South Africa, the illicit trade in abalone has had profound environmental and social costs in the country, often facilitated by supply chains involving drug barons, corrupt officials and other neighbouring states.
FRAGILITY IN FORESTS
Another major environmental crime market is illegal logging (estimated to be worth between US$10 billion and 100 billion), which affects countries across the world, from Latin America, to Central Africa and East Asia. Illegal forest activities have increased in Guyana’s Iwokrama rainforest, according to the Iwokrama International Centre, which claims that people are taking advantage of the coronavirus situation. In response to the spate of illegal activity in the forest, the Centre have announced they will be introducing security cameras, the use of drones and a monitoring station.
On the other side of the Pacific, timber smugglers are increasingly active in Myanmar’s Bago Region. As a result of the national curfew imposed from 10 pm – later reduced to midnight – to 4 am, civil servants in Myanmar, like everyone, must follow the rules. Not only are loggers illegally felling trees in the region able to take advantage of the reduced patrols, but the restrictions on movement also mean that the ability to arrest the perpetrators is drastically impaired.
Deforestation has risen at an alarming rate in a number of other countries across the world, including Indonesia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC is the sixth most forested country in the world, estimated to contain as much as 8 per cent of all the carbon stored in the earth’s vegetation. According to a study carried out by WWF Germany, satellite data of 18 countries shows that deforestation rose by 150 per cent in March compared to the 2017–2019 average for the same month. The organization’s head of nature conservation says that this indicates that the context of the pandemic has enabled ‘exploding rates’ of deforestation. The countries in the study are facing many of the same problems that have facilitated illegal forest activities in a number of other countries around the world, namely the diminished ability of authorities to patrol nature reserves and indigenous territories as a result of stay-at-home orders and other lockdown restrictions.
There may have been many positive environmental consequences of humans’ reduced mobility and the commensurate drop-off in fossil fuel emissions during the period, but these are being outweighed by illicit logging, which is incurring far-reaching and irreparable harm to some of the world’s remaining natural forests, which are anchors of biodiversity and massive carbon reserves.
#CovidCrimeWatch is curated by Lyes Tagziria.