March 3, 2022 is World Wildlife Day, and this year’s theme is “Recovering key species for ecosystem restoration.” Wildlife whistleblowers are citizens and experts on the ground who can help combat wildlife trafficking of endangered species.
The United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated March 3 as World Wildlife Day on December 20, 2013, the same day that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) was signed in 1973. Each year’s celebration has a different theme: this year’s theme focuses on “the conservation status of some of the most critically endangered species of wild fauna and flora.”
“According to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, over 8,400 species of wild fauna and flora are critically endangered, while close to 30,000 more are understood to be endangered or vulnerable. Based on these estimates, it is suggested that over a million species are threatened with extinction,” the World Wildlife Day webpage states. “Continued loss of species, habitats and ecosystems also threatens all life on Earth, including us…In 2022, World Wildlife Day will therefore drive the debate towards the imperative need to reverse the fate of the most critically endangered species, to support the restoration of their habitats and ecosystems and to promote their sustainable use by humanity.”
The National Whistleblower Center (NWC) is celebrating World Wildlife Day by asking people to pledge their support for wildlife whistleblowers through their Wildlife Whistleblower Pledge. “Wildlife whistleblowers are critical insiders armed with otherwise unknowable information about wildlife violations – including the destruction of precious habitats through crimes like illegal timber collection,” said NWC Executive Director Siri Nelson. “Mega corporations and organized criminals thrive by exploiting animals and the environment without fear of detection. The Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act is urgently needed to help wildlife whistleblowers come forward to truly put an end to these irreversible crimes.”
The Importance of Wildlife Whistleblowers
Wildlife whistleblowers are an essential part of combating wildlife trafficking of endangered species. Sara Walker, Senior Advisor on Wildlife Trafficking at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, wrote an article for WNN on how whistleblowers can disrupt wildlife crime. She noted that wildlife trafficking is “driving some of the world’s most beloved animals to the brink of extinction” and highlighted whistleblowers’ role in fighting wildlife 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,” Walker writes.
In her piece, she outlines ways organizations and government leaders can act to protect wildlife whistleblowers and tackle wildlife trafficking. “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,” Walker states.
Danielle Kessler, Acting Director of the U.S. Office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, wrote an article about how the Internet enables the proliferation of the illegal wildlife trade. She highlights the species and animal parts that are hawked on the Internet, from pangolins and big cats to native turtle and songbird species in the U.S. “Combating wildlife trafficking, which often falls to resource-strapped law enforcement and wildlife agencies, is a massive undertaking in the physical world. Introduce the virtual online world and the task seems almost insurmountable,” Kessler writes. She explains that “[t]he internet provides wildlife traffickers with access to a vast international marketplace,” but points to the “impact that individuals—citizens, consumers, employees—can have to curb illegal trade. Florida’s flying squirrel trafficking ring was brought down thanks to the information provided by a single anonymous tipster. That person not only helped to disrupt an organized crime ring, but also saved countless animals from the pain and suffering of being plucked from their native habitats and forced into cramped and inhumane conditions for illegal transport.”
“Federal and state policies should ensure that this type of reporting is incentivized and protect whistleblowers who expose wildlife trafficking, “ Kessler writes. “Even everyday citizens—those without specific access to information about wildlife trafficking—can help to end it.”
Bonnie Wyper, founder, president, and Executive Director of Thinking Animals United, wrote about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #16, which outlines a strategy for “promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Wyper states that this goal “is a missed opportunity to highlight progress in this, as well as in other environmental crimes, such as those illegally decimating the world’s forests, the environments so many wildlife species inhabit.”
Wyper notes that SDG #16 does not mention wildlife or forest crimes, despite their importance. “All environmental crimes have multi-stage supply chains that include the planning, poaching, distribution, transportation, processing, selling and money laundering activities in which drug, human and arm traffickers also participate. This chain offers many touch points in which players can be recorded and identified. But as with all criminal activities, exposing the criminals involved is risky and dangerous. Incentives and protections are needed for those who do so,” she writes.
“The most powerful incentive—the same that motivates illegal activity, is money,” Wyper states. “For instance, monetary whistleblower rewards can be used as incentives to enlist the confidential help of citizens in identifying offenders and bringing them to justice, if indeed, the information results in a successful prosecution.” Wyper also mentions that False Claims Act, which enables whistleblowers, or qui tam relators, to share in a portion of the government’s recoveries if a settlement occurs.
Wildlife Whistleblowers and Legislation
Towards the end of 2021, Representatives John Garamendi (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK) “reintroduced the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act (WCATA). The bill was previously introduced in 2019 and is widely supported by both whistleblower and wildlife advocacy groups,” previous WNN reporting states. The bill “includes requirements for federal agencies to implement whistleblower award programs. These programs would help recruit whistleblowers and monetarily award individuals who blow the whistle on violations of wildlife trafficking laws. Comparable whistleblower programs have revolutionized the detection and prosecution of government contract fraud, tax fraud, and securities fraud.”
WCATA would also redesignate “wildlife trafficking as an offense under federal racketeering and organized crime statutes. The bill also expands conservation funding, as monies recovered by successful prosecutions under wildlife laws would be put directly into conservation efforts.”
In a September 2020 interview with WNN, Rep. Young called wildlife whistleblowers “our eyes and ears on the ground” and “invaluable partners in the fight against illegal hunting and fishing.”