Wildlife crime is on the rise. The UN reports that wildlife trafficking has increased in recent years and is valued at up to $23 billion. In addition to posing severe harm to biodiversity and the environment, wildlife crime is also “a growing threat to natural resources, peace, development and security,” according to the UN.
Whistleblower awards remain a vastly underutilized tool in the United States’ efforts to crack down on wildlife trafficking and poaching. Exclusive reporting by Whistleblower Network News reveals whistleblowers’ critical role in successful enforcement actions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) over the past four years.
Documents obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal that from 2019 to 2022, more than twenty whistleblowers, incentivized by the potential of a whistleblower award, came forward and disclosed wildlife crimes. These whistleblower disclosures allowed FWS to hold wrongdoers accountable for crimes that otherwise would have gone undetected.
For example, in 2016, FWS officials busted an ongoing interstate trafficking scheme of endangered Wood Turtles. FWS agents report that: “It is highly unlikely that [the Office of Law Enforcement (OLE)] would have initiated this investigation or that the investigation would have had a successful outcome, had it not been for [the whistleblower] bringing the unlawful scheme to the attention of OLE and continuing to provide information throughout the investigation.”
These cases highlight the power of whistleblowers in exposing illicit wildlife crimes. Inspired by the immense success of whistleblower award laws under the False Claims Act and Dodd-Frank Act, wildlife advocates ranging from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) support the implementation and use of whistleblower awards for wildlife whistleblowers.
Yet despite the power and potential of whistleblower awards, FWS continues to vastly underutilize them. It was back in the 1980s that Congress amended the Lacey Act (the nation’s premier anti-wildlife trafficking law) to contain provisions that granted FWS the authority to pay monetary awards to whistleblowers who assisted in cases. For decades, these provisions have remained virtually unknown and essentially unused.
Despite calls in recent years for FWS to better publicize and leverage its whistleblower awards (including a scathing report by the Government Accountability Office in 2018), the agency continues to fail to promote whistleblower awards.
While other agencies continually highlight their whistleblower programs with informative websites and press releases on whistleblower awards, it took a FOIA request from WNN for FWS to publicly acknowledge the awards it has issued in the past years. This reluctance to highlight whistleblower awards undermines their effectiveness and reflects a general disinterest in fully leveraging their potential.
Wildlife trafficking and poaching continue to push species to the brink of extinction. It is imperative that FWS uses all its resources and tools to fight these illicit acts to stem the tide of extinction. Whistleblower awards have proven to be an immensely valuable and irreplaceable tool. It is inexcusable that FWS fails to fully utilize them.