Endangered Species Day 2021: How Whistleblowers Can Save Species In Trouble

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Endangered Species Day

May 21, 2021 marks Endangered Species Day, returning attention to the continuing extinction crisis that the world faces. 37,400 species are currently on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species, more than 28% of all species assessed by the organization. Many of these at-risk populations are being decimated by the illegal wildlife trade, which is often tied to organized crime and corruption in countries across the world. 

Amending Treaties To Guide International Policy

The problem with creating ways to cut down on the illegal wildlife trade is that it extends across national borders. Treaties like CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) have tried since the 1970’s to create frameworks for governments to enact their own laws on and increase communication between and among countries with the purpose of regulating international wildlife trade. But the illegal wildlife trade isn’t going away on its own, and Endangered Species Day is an important time to refocus on this continuing serious threat to species. 

At a time when we are facing a wildlife crisis more severe than ever before, there are new initiatives and efforts to tackle this gigantic problem. The Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime is trying to address and fix “serious gaps in international law” that threaten global efforts to root out the illegal wildlife trade. End Wildlife Crime seeks to add a new protocol to the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), which is the UN’s main tool to fight international crime. The new protocol’s working title is “Protocol against the Illicit Trafficking in Specimens of Wild Fauna and Flora” and would create specific obligations for parties to UNTOC to update laws and criminalize illicit wildlife trafficking. 

End Wildlife Crime also hopes to amend the CITES treaty by adding language that would “include public health and animal health criteria into the Convention’s decision-making processes.” Such an amendment could push governments to consider animal populations’ health and the potential health effects on humans of trading certain exotic animals. This would make it more likely that these activities would be outlawed or restricted. The amendment would also recommend that governments place greater checks on the legal international flora and fauna trade, to try to solve pervasive issues such as the spread of invasive species or the rise of deadly pathogens. 

Stronger checks on illegal and legal wildlife import and export are particularly urgent in light of the current COVID-19 crisis, which is caused by a pathogen that scientists believe came from animals in the wildlife trade. Language throughout the proposed amendments is geared towards improving oversight to decrease the risk of spreading pathogens that could be dangerous to public health. If the amendment was adopted, obtaining a permit to import many animals would require that “veterinary and human health authorities, [are] satisfied that such import will not result in significant risk to human or animal health, and that appropriate sanitary and biosecurity checks and measures are in place to prevent such risks from emerging.” 

How Whistleblowers Can Help

While the proposals to supplement and amend these treaties merit serious consideration towards greater protection and regulation of the international wildlife trade, there are complementary tools that can be used to cut down on illegal or trade as well. Whistleblowers have emerged as an effective tool for beheading wildlife crime throughout the world. IUCN members recently adopted 4 resolutions that promoted incorporating whistleblowers in combating environmental crime, including wildlife trafficking. These resolutions cover multiple ways in which international whistleblowers can be encouraged to report wildlife crime violations, and then be protected and rewarded after they do so. 

 IUCN’s resolutions serve as international support for including whistleblowers in End Wildlife Crime’s proposed protocol to UNTOC. Adding systems that would enable whistleblowers to safely report on international wildlife crime and be rewarded for their disclosures would add to the toolkit for tackling international organized crime, and maybe help fix a problem governments are struggling with.

U.S. lawmakers have been attempting to enact similar wildlife whistleblower incentives and protections. The Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act would empower whistleblowers, even those who are not U.S. citizens, to anonymously report on the illegal wildlife trade. The bill would mandate rewards for whistleblowers who make disclosures that lead to successful prosecutions, a move that whistleblower experts agree is an essential part of any effective whistleblower system. Its passage would significantly enhance wildlife conservation and protection. 

Incorporating Whistleblowers Into Treaty Proposals 

The illegal wildlife trade is so difficult to stop because it is transnational, or in other words, because it is decentralized. There is no one group running it, and this gives it the ability to restructure if individual governments make any headway against it. In considering the proposed protocol for UNTOC, whistleblowers should be incorporated into the framework as a decentralized way to attack the illegal wildlife trade from the inside.

The CITES website enforcement page recently added a Targeting Natural Resource Corruption paper that makes the case for greater use of whistleblowers in international wildlife protection and enforcement, written earlier this year by whistleblower experts Stephen M. Kohn and John Kostyack. The paper advocates for increasing protections for whistleblowers so that they can more easily report corruption, as well as instituting financial rewards to encourage more whistleblowers to make disclosures. The paper lays out a compelling case for why whistleblowers are a key tool to help, and how to best support them. 

Every year, Endangered Species Day brings our attention back to the animals that are still on the verge of extinction. The illegal wildlife trade plays a massive role in the continuing threat towards these species. No single measure can bring an end to this transnational problem, but together, these solutions can start to change the tide. Stronger language in treaties that encourage greater oversight in international trade and fighting organized crime coupled with stronger whistleblower protections and rewards will make a significant difference in the fate of tens of thousands of species of animals and plants, and maybe, save many of them from extinction.

Read more about CITES and UNTOC here. 

Read more about End Wildlife Crime here.

Read TNRC’s paper here

Read more wildlife whistleblower and environmental news on WNN

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