Wildlife trafficking is a global crisis—one of the crucial conservation issues of our time— driving some of the world’s most beloved animals to the brink of extinction. Wildlife trafficking is also a people problem. It disrupts the livelihoods of local communities that depend upon wildlife and other natural resources for survival; threatens human health by exposing us to potential zoonotic diseases; and fuels government corruption and other forms of organized crime. The challenge we are facing is enormous. But solving this crisis is achievable if we work together and strategically implement all available tools in the fight against trafficking. Whistleblowers are an important and effective tool in fighting wildlife crime and should be used around the world to help law enforcement disrupt the criminal networks that illegally trade wildlife. Below are four ways this can be achieved:
1. Raise awareness about wildlife trafficking and whistleblower protection laws.
In early 2021, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) conducted a public opinion poll on wildlife trafficking in the United States. The results indicated an overwhelming concern for wildlife trafficking, with 90% of respondents reporting it as a “serious problem.” The same poll revealed that 59% of respondents were likely to take action to combat trafficking by reporting a product or animal for sale that might be illegal, ranking this one of the top three (of ten) likely actions that people are willing to take. Furthermore, after exposure to our wildlife trafficking messaging, respondents were even more likely to take this action, with 65% of people saying they would be willing to report illegal activity.
By working together to raise awareness and educate the public about wildlife trafficking and whistleblower protection laws, and their associated monetary awards, we can create a compelling message that will amplify a tool that empowers more individuals to come forward and report suspicious activity.
2. Develop strategic partnerships to ensure ongoing collaboration.
AZA’s Wildlife Trafficking Alliance (WTA) is a coalition of more than eighty leading companies, nonprofits, and AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, working together to combat wildlife trafficking globally. WTA coordinates efforts to: (1) Raise the public’s awareness of the scope of the wildlife trafficking crisis; (2) Effect behavior change to reduce consumer demand for wildlife and wildlife products; and (3) Mobilize companies to adopt best practices to assure that their goods and services are not being utilized by illegal wildlife traffickers, and to assist in raising public awareness and reducing demand.
In 2017, two WTA partners, National Whistleblower Center (NWC) and Earth League International (ELI), joined forces to further incentivize and protect whistleblowers. NWC’s Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program partnered with ELI’s WildLeaks to provide whistleblowers with a secure and confidential web-based platform to report wildlife crime and help connect whistleblowers with attorneys to help them apply for monetary rewards under appropriate U.S. laws.
Collaboration is critical to stop wildlife trafficking. WTA provides a unique network for our partners that fosters and amplifies such partnerships as we work together toward a common goal.
3. Advocate for continued bipartisan congressional leadership.
In recent years, the U.S. Congress has taken a leadership role in combating wildlife trafficking. And more importantly, Congress has taken a bipartisan approach to tackling this very important issue.
In 2016, AZA supported the bipartisan END Wildlife Trafficking Act, which provides vital tools to protect our national security and to save animals from extinction. AZA also supported the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act (2019’s H.R. 864) and supports future bipartisan efforts that seek to provide additional protections for endangered wildlife and seek to curb wildlife trafficking through whistleblower rewards.
AZA supports current bipartisan efforts to end wildlife trafficking and combat zoonotic diseases and calls on Congress to act swiftly on legislation such as the Preventing Future Pandemics Act (H.R. 151/S. 37), The Big Cat Public Safety Act (H.R. 263/S/ 1210), and S. 521 to reauthorize the Saving Vanishing Species Semipostal stamp.
4. Include whistleblower provisions in international agreements.
AZA championed and supported three recently adopted International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) resolutions that include whistleblower provisions. Resolutions 38, 40, and 54 highlight a variety of ways to encourage wildlife crime reporting, and subsequent protections and rewards, for those who come forward. Such resolutions can serve as a pathway forward for governments to incorporate whistleblower tools into wildlife crime strategies; and indicate potential support for incorporating whistleblowers into other existing international frameworks to fight transnational crime.
Combating wildlife trafficking is an increasingly complex issue; disrupting it will require a multi-sector and multi-solution approach. Whistleblower incentives and protections should be incorporated into national and international policies to supplement current enforcement strategies. Never have we had a better opportunity to make wildlife trafficking a more relatable and relevant issue. In a moment when we are still experiencing the devastating impacts of COVID-19—highlighting the interconnectedness of humans and nature—it is time to act.