To Honor Esmond Martin, U.S. Agencies Must Implement Wildlife Whistleblower Programs

Esmond Martin, after decades of working undercover investigating the illegal wildlife trade, was found stabbed to death in his Nairobi home earlier this week.

Martin was an extraordinarily intelligent man. An American geographer from New York, Martin published books and extensive reports on Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, and Laos. But it may have been Martin’s bravery that got him killed.

The investigation into Martin’s death is ongoing. He would not be the first to be murdered by the wildlife trafficking syndicates. Wayne Lotter, who founded Protected Area Management Solutions, was killed in August after years of combatting wildlife traffickers. Both Martin and Lotter knew the danger of their work and received many death threats. They persisted anyway, undeterred by the danger. But if future whistleblowers are going to step forward and uncover these criminal networks, governments around the world will need to enact and enforce better laws.

The American government is uniquely positioned to protect whistleblowers and curb wildlife trafficking. The United States has potentially strong whistleblower laws: the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act both provide valuable whistleblower protections. These laws, if properly implemented, could offer confidentiality and anonymity to whistleblowers who report on wildlife crime. This would greatly reduce potential risks for the many brave individuals working to gather information about the criminal syndicates pushing the wildlife trade.

But the agencies charged with overseeing such programs have been asleep at the wheel. The Departments of Interior, Commerce, Agriculture, and Treasury all have formal authority to issue wildlife rewards, but not a single one has taken steps to create a robust whistleblower program or help establish safety protocols.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) failure to establish such a program has been particularly confounding; FWS concedes that whistleblowers have been helpful in numerous cases yet they have never formalized a rewards program that could bring more whistleblowers into the fold. There is no information about a whistleblower rewards program on its site, and it fails to promote any such initiative either in the United States or abroad. The agency hopes top-notch informants walk in the door with information that could lead to arrests and fines, but it has failed to let potential whistleblowers that such a door even exists.

The results from these failures have been catastrophic. In 2007, thirteen rhinos were poached in South Africa. By 2014, that number has risen to 1215, amounting to an increase of 9000%. More than 100,000 African elephants were killed by poachers in just three years; the central part of the continent lost 64% of its elephants in a decade. Elephants, as many know, are among the smartest animals that walk the planet (for now). They aid other elephants in distress, are capable of empathy, and grieve for their dead. Elephants even grieve for humans. At the current rate of poaching, elephants in the wild are will go extinct in the near future.

Humans are also effected by the wildlife trafficking syndicates. While Lotter and possibly Martin are among the most high profile victims of these brazen criminals, individuals of color from developing countries are much more likely targets than Europeans or Americans. It is reported that around 100 park rangers are killed by poachers each year. The global security consequences of thriving international traffickers goes far beyond wildlife: the criminal networks that trade in rhino horns and ivory tusks also are known to traffic human, weapons, and drugs.

There have been some small steps in the right direction, including President Obama’s 2013 Order on combatting wildlife trafficking. But much more needs to be done. First and foremost, FWS and other departments that oversee wildlife issues need to set up formal whistleblower program that incentivizes whistleblowers to come forward through a fair rewards system and allows informants to remain both confidential and anonymous in order to protect their safety.

The Securities and Exchange Commission started such a program in the wake of the financial crisis and it has been incredibly successful at uncovering fraud and deterring illegal behavior. Second, The Department of Justice needs to embrace using the False Claims Act (FCA), which allows whistleblowers to bring cases on behalf of the government, in the wildlife crime context. The possible rewards from an FCA case would encourage whistleblowers to come forward by decoupling the interests of the trafficking kingpins from the foot-soldiers who run day-to-day operations. Finally, American officials should continue to press the importance of illegal wildlife trafficking in diplomatic talks and on the international stage.

Esmond Martin’s life was devoted to ending wildlife trafficking. Stronger wildlife whistleblower laws would move us much closer to Martin’s ultimate goal.

TAKE ACTION: Write to the Secretaries of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, and Treasury urging them to establish robust whistleblower programs in their agencies.

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