As we see clean skies above formerly polluted cities, many environmentalists are celebrating the reduced impact on nature from the lowered consumption of fossil fuels and human activity. Most have not yet fully considered, however, other links between COVID-19, environmental governance and sustainability, or other unfolding criminal risks connected to the same crimes that helped cause the pandemic. 

Wildlife trafficking: on the origins of COVID-19

Where there is a mix of live animals or animal products, unhygienic conditions and overcrowding, the potential spread of diseases is far higher – as was the case at the live animal market in Wuhan, China, where the transfer of SARS-CoV-2 appears to have originated.

The ancestral host of COVID-19 is probably one of the species of horseshoe bats. Despite speculative links to pangolins, the host animal that transmitted this disease to a human has not yet been identified. As the Global Initiative previously highlighted, illegal markets increase the risk for the transmission of zoonotic diseases, which has fuelled the pandemic.

Wild animals, either live or as by-products, are marketed worldwide as pets, meat, traditional medicine, as part of private collections, or for the manufacture of different consumer products. This demand is often supplied through illegal markets, both physical and virtual. To supply this trade, various species of fauna are captured or reproduced once collected or in captivity. In both cases, contact with people facilitates the transfer of pathogens.

The illegal online market

With access to physical wildlife markets now restricted, the online wildlife trade appears to have boomed, like certain other illicit markets in the time of quarantine. On 7 May, Facebook and Google reported removing ‘several million’ advertisements related to China’s illegal wildlife trade. What we know indicates that this illegal trade ranges from simple e-commerce platforms to specialized groups in social networks, or potentially in hidden networks – such as the dark web.  

Payment methods used for the purchase of various illicit products are often difficult to monitor, and include the use of cryptocurrencies (e.g. Hot Dollars, or HDS). Such payment methods have been identified in advertisements for the illegal sale of wildlife. Other modalities used to adapt to the new COVID-19 restrictions are linked to other crime types, and involve, for instance, courier or delivery shipments, thus weakening the monitoring and control of supply chains.

Vulnerabilities from weakened enforcement capacity

In some places, COVID-19 has caused an increase in wildlife crime as law-enforcement authorities that are usually in the field controlling highways and checkpoints have been deployed to other areas as part of the broader response. Many of these agencies already faced personnel shortages prior to the pandemic, and now their logistical and technical capacity has been weakened further, opening doors to potential illegal cargo exits on various unprotected routes.

In many countries, the armed forces are guarding the streets due to citizen security issues, and to safeguard confinement measures aimed at reducing the spread and transmission of COVID-19. In the same way, this has had the effect of constraining the safeguarding of protected natural areas, as, in many cases, the number of park rangers has been minimized because of pandemic restrictions. There has already been news of alarm in national parks in Africa. Other points that may be vulnerable are control processes for wildlife breeding sites for legal trade, which may be facilitated by the illegal trade in, for example, illegally caught animals.

The critical role of good governance

From China’s failure to regulate illegal wildlife trade to national failures to recognize the virus as a potential emergency, and instead resorting to blaming others, ineffective governance among global superpowers has contributed to the novel coronavirus outbreak. This type of short-sighted poor governance has led, and will continue to lead, to devastating consequences for humankind.

With considerable evidence suggesting COVID-19 first emerged in a wildlife market, China acted to permanently ban the trade in and consumption of wild animals. For now, the list includes domestic animals (dogs, cats) and wildlife species, such as frogs, turtles, bats and snakes, but has yet to be finalized. Unfortunately, there are still no restrictions on the use of animal products in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Last year, the World Health Organization gave TCM the green light as an accepted medical practice following extensive lobbying by proponents. As long as the law does not bite, individuals will seek to profit from these opportunities. Even as the ban tightens, and as is often the case with environmental crime, a bubble effect is bound to occur as organized crime groups will use this opportunity to hide deeper in the folds of illegal trade.

Good environmental governance informs efforts to achieve equilibrium between the right to develop on the one hand, and the sustainable use of natural resources on the other. One of the reasons the global economy is now in recession is because the system upon which it has functioned was not sustainable. A good example of a sturdy, guiding hand during this COVID-19 crisis has been New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who has refused to discard environmental standards to meet emergency demands.

Policymakers need to recognize that symbiotic relationships exist between environmental crime and financial crime, corruption and various other forms of transnational organized crime. Environmental crimes are often predicate offences to these other crimes, which should be considered as aggravating factors to the environmental crime itself. Taking environmental crimes seriously will also ensure that sufficient resources are allocated to the response.

Another recommended policy is to strengthen the ‘one health’ approach that highlights the close relationship between human, animal and ecosystem health. This approach also provides zoonosis-risk-reduction guidance through comprehensive responses by multiple sectors and professionals related to the health of human and animal populations, as well as the environment.

Without data or reliable evidence, authorities often fail to allocate resources for environmental-crime investigations – and without investigations, there will be no legal cases. As the world has been transformed by COVID-19, it is sobering to consider that the tragedy of this pandemic might have been prevented with more stringent laws against environmental crime. Recognizing the relationship between weak environmental governance, sustainability and COVID-19 is crucial, but it can only be a positive thing if enforcement is effective.

Cover: Shawn Harquail – Floating Logs

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Shirleen Chin

Originally from Malaysia, Shirleen Chin is an international legal expert working on matters related to environmental crime, international criminal law, illicit trade, anti-corruption, organised crime and economic crimes. She worked largely in the non-profit sector, with some years in the private sector. She holds a BA in Business and Management, an LLB (cum laude) in Public International Law and Human Rights and an MBA in International Business. She is currently the Managing Director of Green Transparency, a firm that provides clients with the tools and expertise they need to effectively manage their environmental strategies. She is based in The Hague, the Netherlands.

As recognition of her work, Shirleen has been invited to speak at various international conferences on environmental crime, illicit trade, anti-corruption and organised crime. She also gives regular guest lectures to students, diplomats and trade associations. She is a legal trainer for Kreisau Initiative’s Model International Criminal Court and the Anne Frank House’s Justice Now Project. Shirleen has been a member of a working group on organised crime for the Siracusa International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights since 2016 and she was recently nominated as a member to the working group on Environmental and Economic Governance for the World Federalist Movement (Institute for Global Policy).

Parallel to her job, she enjoys writing articles pertaining to governance and is exploring ways to make cities meet some of the targets of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with a strong focus on Goal 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and Goal 13 (Climate Action). Her work on projects have led to several online publications and in 2015, she appeared as an expert guest on a Euronews TV programme called “On The Frontline” addressing “Dirty Business: Mafia’s Toxic Waste Crime Spreads Across Europe”.

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Angélica Yovana Murillo Vega

Angélica Yovana Murillo Vega is wildlife veterinarian from Lima, Peru. She has more than 10 years of experience and knowledge on wildlife trafficking in Peru, obtained through training and working experience. Her experience began in 2006 and includes working in a rescue center in the Amazon where she took care of confiscated wild animals from the illegal trade. In 2012, she joined WCS as a wildlife veterinarian staff as a part of the Peru’s Wildlife Health and Policy Program, where she collaborated on field activities evaluating the presence of pathogens in relation to trafficking. Then she was part of another project BIOCAN (funded by the Andean Community supported by the Finland government) where she provided technical assistance to national authorities in charge of control and surveillance from different countries, to design the first materials for identification and management of confiscated wild animals. Based on these experience she assumed more responsibilities and in 2014 she started coordinating for WCS a project funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that successfully resulted in the construction of the National Strategy to combat Wildlife Trafficking in Peru, where she lead governmental meetings with more than 17 governmental institution with the responsibility in control and supervision of illegal wildlife trade. Since October 2015 Murillo has assumed the leadership of the traffic and wildlife health initiative of WCS in Peru, where she coordinates two other projects related to wildlife trafficking, one aimed to scaling up enforcement capacity and cooperation to combat wildlife trafficking networks in Latin America supported by INL and another project supported by USFWS to establishing the foundations and strengthening capacities in the Peruvian government for reducing wildlife trafficking in border areas with activities in the border zone of Peru and Ecuador. Currently, she is the Wildlife Trafficking and Health initiative coordinator for WCS Peru.

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