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How corruption is undermining every aspect of conservation

Bob Smith, University of Kent

African elephants are in serious danger. The magnificent creatures are found in 37 countries – and most of these populations are threatened by poaching. The problem is that protecting elephants isn’t cheap and conservationists struggle to fund their work.

In Africa, budgets are tight and governments have bigger priorities such as funding health and education. At an international level public sympathy for elephants rarely translates into cash, so donor funding is normally short-term and unpredictable.

This is why many African governments stockpiled ivory that was confiscated from poachers or came from elephants that died of natural causes before selling their ivory legally and using the money to pay for conservation work. This last happened in 2008 but several African countries are stockpiling more of their ivory for the future. Many countries outside Africa – prominent among them China – have markets for antique and legally stockpiled ivory.

So the sale of ivory can provide a reliable source of funding for elephant conservation. But outside Africa this trade is often passionately opposed. This partly comes from lack of awareness – many people think all ivory comes from poaching, whereas some comes from elephant deaths and herd conservation and management. Many people are also uneasy about the idea of making money from wildlife and are particularly uncomfortable when it involves animals as majestic as elephants.

This is one reason why in the last year several countries have destroyed their ivory stockpiles in the hope it will discourage trade and reduce poaching. In contrast, countries such as Botswana and South Africa, which have large and growing elephant populations, continue to store theirs.

Corruption in conservation

A more specific issue has come to light, however. We now have good evidence that the trade is being undermined by corruption. Poached ivory is being laundered as legal ivory and park staff, customs officials and politicians have been implicated. Some conservationists argue this corruption can’t be tackled and have called for a complete trade ban.

The fact that people are exposing these examples of corruption is a great step forward. This is because conservationists are generally wary of publicising the problem. However, together with colleagues, I recently argued that we should not single out the ivory trade. Corruption could be undermining every aspect of elephant conservation and we have no evidence that this trade is more affected.

Successful elephant conservation is based on funding park management, enforcing laws and sharing benefits with local people. All of these can be undermined by bribery, cronyism and embezzlement.

This is illustrated by a 2010 study that looked at how well African national parks protected their wildlife. It showed that all animals are in decline in the more corrupt countries, including lower-profile species such as antelopes and zebras. This suggests elephant numbers would be dropping anyway in these countries, independent of international wildlife trade policy.

Fortunately, evidence from business and anti-poverty projects does show that corruption can be tackled. An important first step is breaking up the problem into specific issues, such as embezzlement of national park budgets or bribery of police to turn a blind eye to poaching. This makes the task less daunting, changing the idea that corruption is a huge, unsolvable problem. Many of these problems can then be reduced by adopting good business practice. These include commonsense actions such as checking project bank accounts and sacking rule-breakers.

Another approach is to focus on where conservation groups have the most influence. Police and customs officials put most of their efforts into stopping crimes against people, not animals. So it makes sense for conservationists to try and stop elephants being poached in the first place.

Increasing success on the ground ensures healthy elephant populations and local people’s support for their conservation. It also tackles the problem of ivory laundering at source.

Tackling the problem

All of this suggests we can tackle corruption in elephant conservation but need to change how conservationists deal with the problem. A good start would be following the example of anti-poverty groups, such as CAFOD, Tearfund and Christian Aid. They recognised that corporate bribery was stopping them achieving their goals and took action. This is why they played an active role in publicising the problem and supporting new anti-corruption initiatives, such as the recent UK Bribery Act.

Just as importantly, the international community needs to consider corruption when developing elephant conservation strategies. At the moment, it takes a crisis before new policies and projects are developed. These initiatives then focus on countries with the biggest poaching problems and assume more money and stricter laws will help.

But such policies actually play into the hands of corrupt officials. It is much easier to steal money in a crisis and stricter laws just create more opportunities for bribery. Burning ivory reduces the supply and could increase prices on the black market. So unless corruption is tackled, investing in elephant poaching hot-spots will be a short-term solution at best.

Instead, we need projects to understand and tackle corruption. We should learn from countries with successful elephant conservation policies and give them a greater voice in international debates. Finally, we should discuss corruption more openly and use our head as well as our heart when trying to save Africa’s elephants.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Critically Endangered Black Rhino are very special creatures, and the Namibian Black Rhino (which include desert-adapted black rhino) are in a league all of their own.


Adapted to a more specialized kind of diet than that of a white rhino, black rhino have a prehensile (pointed) upper lip which enables then to strip juicy bark off young trees, and get a firm grip on soft shrubbery or tufts of grass that they like. They are smaller than White Rhino, and have a slightly different arc and dip to their back.

Black Rhino are more solitary creatures, but the older males can be extremely aggressive in defending their territory, sometimes killing other rhino in territorial disputes; which in turn ensures the survival of strongest and the best gene-pool to be carried over to the young.

It is this trait of aggression that had been exploited by the Dallas Safari Club in their January 2014 auction of the trophy hunting permit for a black rhino in Namibia. The rhino on auction had been nicknamed ‘Ronnie’ by Animal Advocates worldwide, despite the fact that no single rhino had been identified to be killed. The issuing of PAC (Problem Animal Control) Permits in Namibia has been surrounded by controversy, when it surfaced that certain Hunting Outfitters were pre-selling these permits months in advance. A problem animal is supposed to be put down within 48 hours of completion of the investigation into such complaints (by the Namibian MET – Ministry of Environment and Tourism). With more than a year having passed since the auction, it is therefore just not possible for ‘Ronnie the Rhino’ to be placed in the category of a rogue bull as the Dallas Safari Club and the auction winner Corey Knowlton have been claiming all along.

The hold-up in the meantime, had been the non-ruling of the USF&WS (United States Fish and Wildlife Service) and their trophy import permit application that had been submitted by Knowlton. In short Knowlton and the Dallas Safari Club held the Namibian Government to ransom for the winning bid of $350k; forcing their support in manipulating the USF&WS to issue the import permit. In other words, if Knowlton could not take home his trophy rhino, he would not pay the bid amount.

This is a clear indication that this fiasco is not about conservation, but all about ego. If it was not, this hunt would have been completed last year already, since Knowlton was so desperate to ‘intimately experience a black rhino’.

As part of the import permit review process, there was a period of time allowed for the input of public comment for consideration. The USF&WS was not prepared for the avalanche of around 135 000 petition signatures and 15 000 emails all opposing the issuing of the permit. But, it was all window dressing.

In a shocking turn of events, Knowlton’s import permit was approved by the USF&WS on Thursday. In a statement by the USF&WS they mentioned that they have based their decision on scientific information only. They mention the pro-trophy hunting WWF and CBNRM programs as being in support of the permit allocation. This begs the question as to why they requested public input in the first place - if they completely ignored it.

In the meantime, an investigation into the poaching of rhino in Namibia had been completed by a well-known investigative journalist, and this partially exposed shocking numbers of rhino lost in Namibia (up to a quarter of the total Namibian Black Rhino Population poached in 2013 & 2014), as well as the involvement of various hunting outfitters in highly questionable practices with regards to trophy hunting in Namibia. Unfortunately, this information came to light way too late to be included in the USFWS public comment period.

In addition to the timing, the decision by the USFWS to support big money instead of true conservation was completely unexpected.

The second import permit was issued to Michael Luzich, and individual who should never even be allowed back in Namibia, after being responsible for the ‘accidental’ killing of a pregnant black rhino cow in Mangetti. He was a client of Thormӓhlen & Cochren, and the Professional Hunter involved, is Jan du Plessis of Sebra Hunt Safaris, also recently in the news for allegedly pre-selling a problem elephant permit without the elephant having been identified.

Luzich is supposed to pay $200k for his black rhino trophy.

The decision of the USF&WS flies in the face of their apparent concern for the elephants of Zimbabwe. They upheld a ban on the importation of trophy hunted Zimbabwean elephants, numbering tens of thousands. The USF&WS also recently applauded the Kenyan Government for burning a 15 ton ivory stockpile.

It is becoming increasingly problematic to take an institution such as USF&WS seriously as having the best interest of our wildlife at heart. Their decisions and support or condemnation of various conservation issues are just not consistent, and their disregard for the opinion of conservationists living and working with these animals is alarming to say the least.

In the meantime, our Rhino are dying, either being poached or trophy hunted, while institutions who do have the power to save them are pandering to their strategic allies.

CJ Carrington © Wild Heart Wildlife Foundation.

29 March 2015

New York: Illegal wildlife trade undermines rule of law, degrades ecosystems and severely hampers the efforts of rural communities striving to sustainably manage their natural resources, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Tuesday as the intergovernmental organisation marked World Wildlife Day.

"Combatting this crime is not only essential for conservation efforts and sustainable development; it will contribute to achieving peace and security in troubled regions where conflicts are fuelled by these illegal activities," said the UN secretary general in a message.

"Getting serious about wildlife crime means enrolling the support of all sections of society involved in the production and consumption of wildlife products, which are widely used as medicines, food, building materials, furniture, cosmetics, clothing and accessories," he added.

World Wildlife Day - observed annually, with this year's theme 'It's time to get serious about wildlife crime' - was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 2013 for March 3, the day of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

According to the UN, as many as 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2010 and 2012. For forest elephants, the population declined by an estimated 62 percent between 2002 and 2011. In Asia, poached African ivory may represent an end-user street value of $165 to $188 million.

According to new figures released on Tuesday, elephant poaching rates remained virtually unchanged in 2014 compared to 2013, and still exceeded natural elephant population growth rates, meaning a continued decline in elephant numbers overall is likely.

According to CITIES, 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone in 2014 - this translates to one rhino killed every eight hours. Approximately 94 percent of rhino poaching takes place in South Africa, which has the largest remaining populations and rhino horn poached in 2014 is valued at an estimated $63-$192 million.

The illicit trafficking in live great apes is an increasingly serious threat to chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos in Africa and orangutans in Asia, with seizures averaging 1.3 per week since 2014. It is estimated that a minimum of 220 chimpanzees, 106 orangutans, 33 bonobos, and 15 gorillas have been lost from the wild over the last 14 months, according to the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP).

In his remarks, CITS Secretary General John Scanlon said: "Illegal wildlife trade is threatening the survival of some of our most charismatic species, as well as some plants and animals you may have never heard of. And it threatens people, their livelihoods, their safety and security."

"The situation is serious," he warned, urging the international community to tackle the poaching, transport and consumption of illegally traded wildlife and in so doing use the same sorts of enforcement tools, techniques and penalties used to combat other serious crimes, such as trafficking in drugs or people.

Indeed, once an emerging threat, wildlife and forest crime has transformed into one of the largest transnational organised criminal activities alongside drug trafficking, arms, and trafficking in human beings. Beyond immediate environmental impacts, the illegal trade in natural resources is depriving developing economies of billions of dollars in lost revenues.

"Wildlife crime is a transnational organised crime generating billions of dollars and undermining development. It is also an inter-generational crime that can permanently scar the world through the loss of some of our most beautiful creatures. To stop this, we must act now," said Yury Fedotov, executive director for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is launching new initiatives to halt the illegal trade in wildlife in Asia and Africa. These initiatives will tackle wildlife crime by focussing on law enforcement, regulations, and engaging the private sector and strengthening collaboration between governments within and across the two regions.

"World Wildlife Day is an opportunity to celebrate wildlife, but it is also a wake-up call to get serious about wildlife crime. We must all do more to halt the illegal trade in wildlife. UNDP and its partners are committed to this task," UNDP Administrator Helen Clark said.

World Wildlife Day was marked by events around the world. In New York, the Central Park Zoo featured a high-level expert panel discussion on the links between wildlife trafficking, organised crime and sustainable development. Other observances were held around the world in Cairo, Lima, Nairobi, Seoul, Vienna, Geneva, Berlin and Sao Paulo.