by Vanda Felbab-Brown on 19 January 2018

The global poaching crisis has induced large segments of the conservation community to call for far tougher law enforcement. Many look to policing lessons from decades of counter-narcotics efforts for solutions.

Boosting enforcement of wildlife regulations is overdue, as they have long been accorded the least priority by many enforcement authorities and corruption has further eviscerated their enforcement in many critical wildlife supply, transshipment, and demand countries.

But better and tougher law enforcement is not a silver bullet. In fact, some designs of interdiction modeled on counter-narcotics efforts, including the current conservation community emphasis on greater en-route seizures of smuggled wildlife, can be outright counterproductive.

The point in the smuggling chain at which enforcement and interdiction take place matters enormously. In the case of drugs — a non-depletable resource than can be produced in very large volumes indefinitely — seizing drugs close to production, such as in Colombia, Afghanistan, or Myanmar, is not very effective in terms of the cost of their replacement and knock-on effects on retail prices. Seizing drugs close to consumption and retail markets, such as in the United States or Europe, boosts prices much more, thus discouraging some users.

However, for political, social, and justice reasons, interdiction in Colombia or Afghanistan that targets drug smuggling organizations and focuses on semi-processed or processed drugs, destruction of processing labs, and arrests of traffickers is still preferable to eradicating the drug crops of poor farmers. Hundreds of thousands of farmers in drug-cultivating countries depend on drug cultivation for their livelihoods. They will mobilize to oppose eradication, and may thus support militant groups, such as the Taliban, that provide them with protection. Moreover, in addition to prioritizing interdiction over eradication, in the case of drugs, it’s important that interdiction be designed to reduce smugglers’ proclivity toward violence and their capacity to corrupt institutions and penetrate political systems. It should also seek to limit the access of militant groups to drug revenues.

Like drug crop eradication, preventing poor, marginalized indigenous communities from subsistence hunting or even participating in global wildlife trafficking is ethically questionable and can become politically unsustainable.

But, unlike with drugs, focusing interdiction on en-route transshipment is highly problematic. All traffickers, whether in wildlife or drugs, assume they will lose a certain percentage of contraband to enforcement efforts, and therefore will simply pay for the production of larger volumes to cover their predicted losses. They even welcome eradication and seizures since enforcement boosts prices and makes stockpiles more profitable. The traffickers’ ability to increase and adjust supply to offset losses is one of the reasons why prices of drugs have not gone up high enough to reduce the capacity and motivation of consumers to purchase them. Seizures are thus highly unlikely to bankrupt traffickers of drugs or wildlife.

Yet increasing the volume of animals poached in order to maintain supply despite law enforcement is a most undesirable and counterproductive side-effect of combating the illegal wildlife trade. Traffickers of rare parrots from Indonesia, whom I encountered during my research, for example, fully expected a 90 to 95 percent mortality rate as a result of their smuggling methods. To evade law-enforcement agencies, they stuffed the parrots into plastic bottles with GPS trackers and threw them into the sea so as to retrieve them on open waters outside the reach of naval interdiction. The fact that less than 10 percent of the parrots survived was not a deterrent to this appalling method, as profits on the remaining specimens were more than sufficient.

In fact, prices can be boosted by scarcity so much that absorbing huge losses and driving a species close to extinction can be profitable and attractive for traffickers. The rarer the species, the greater its value. Law enforcement must avoid creating those transshipment inefficiencies that motivate smugglers to organize the poaching of many more animals so as to deliver even a few to the market.

Rather than focusing on en-route interdiction, shutting down the retailers of illegal wildlife commodities is critical. Although retail may merely be driven underground, reducing the visibility, accessibility, and advertisement of retail markets helps drive demand down. Shutting down online and social media websites of illegal wildlife products is equally imperative.

But the single most effective form of law enforcement in countering wildlife trafficking and poaching is enforcement within areas where the species occur to prevent animals from being killed or removed from the wild in the first place.

Such in situ enforcement, however, often runs into the challenge that local populations can be willing participants in poaching for global smuggling networks. If local populations have not internalized laws and consider them an illegitimate imposition of Western values that hamper their socioeconomic survival and advancement, enforcement becomes costly both politically and morally, as well as in terms of resources.

Despite claims that today’s wildlife trafficking is all about organized crime groups, in situ law enforcement must be accompanied by socioeconomic aid policies, such as ecotourism, financial transfers, or sustainable trophy hunting, in order to motivate local communities to comply with and internalize wildlife conservation.

The White Rhinoceros was on the brink of extinction at the end of the 19th century, but the species has rebounded since then, with approximately 20,000 White Rhinos in Africa today. However, this conservation success story “is being undone by the high levels of rhino poaching since the mid-2000s,” according to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It (Hurst-Oxford University Press, 2017).