Opinion: The Role of Whistleblower Protections in Wildlife Conservation

In the region of East Africa, poachers are slaughtering elephants at a rate faster than these elephants can reproduce. In fact, thousands of elephants are cruelly killed each year to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory. The people and communities that live closest to these majestic animals pay a high price as a result of this illegal activity. This is just one example of the critically urgent need to protect animals from illegal killing and to protect those brave enough to come forward with information to stop this wildlife crime before it happens. 

As a global, non-profit conservation and animal welfare organization, the International Fund for Animal Welfare understands the innate connection between wildlife crime and whistleblower protection. For nearly half a century, we have identified and combatted threats to animals across the globe, provided leadership and hands-on assistance to both animals and communities in need, recognizing that our mission begins with understanding and empowering people as well as local communities. Because these communities often directly interact with threatened species, they possess invaluable field experience and wisdom. It is precisely this fundamental spirit of cooperation and collaboration in multiple communities across the globe that has driven our success.

Our work would not be possible without the essential component of trust—from the local level to the international stage. Trust in one another, trust in the community, and trust in the system. It is when this final element is lacking—this trust in the system—that we are reminded of the fundamental role that whistleblower laws play.

IFAW’s global role and decades of experience has shown us first hand that there exists a very real safety risk for those on the ground—inside both communities and governments —who have urgent information to share. These people understand the greater good of the environment and animal conservation and the moral imperative to act regardless of their circumstances. There is no information more urgent than that held by a whistleblower—for this ‘real time’ information can literally mean life or death for these animals—and is often the only key to stopping a crime such as poaching–before it begins. IFAW recognizes the need to protect these whistleblowers, and to take further steps all the way through the trade chain, from poaching, through the smuggling of wildlife products in transit, and ultimately to the markets.

This year IFAW welcomed National Whistleblower Center Executive Director Stephen M. Kohn to a US Department of State-funded cross-border wildlife security training on the Kenya/Tanzania border. The training focused on a range of countermeasures to wildlife trafficking and the module on applying whistleblower laws to assist wildlife authorities, customs personnel and local policymakers was particularly innovative.

IFAW and the NWC recently signed a strategic cooperative agreement to combat wildlife trafficking around the world, especially where the threat of corruption is most acute. And this is just the beginning. Through these combined efforts, IFAW and NWC will continue to work together to disrupt the wildlife crime supply chain. As long as the demand for illegal wildlife continues to keep illicit trade alive, we will need innovation, collaboration, and mutual trust to resolve the problem.

The integration of whistleblower laws have proven effective to combating other forms of crime and at IFAW, we believe the time is ripe to integrate these protections into the wildlife crime sphere. We support Congressional efforts to more fully bring whistleblowers in the field of wildlife trafficking enforcement along with other actions by the US to protect those with information and to incentivize them to come forward with information to law enforcement. Although monetary rewards are an obvious motivator, in our line of work, the promise of confidentiality is just as great. This can mean the safety and well-being of the whistleblower themselves, in addition to the animals we are all striving to protect.

Animals and the environment are a fundamental component of our wellbeing and that the value we place on them cannot be effectively quantified or in any way overstated. The need for stewardship of our resources begins at the individual level and connects us with global community. It is when we join together—when we build that element of trust and give the brave and caring individual a chance to safely act for the benefit of the greater good—that we can achieve a sustainable and peaceful coexistence with the natural world.


*Beth Allgood, US Country Director for IFAW

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