Illegal Wildlife Trade and Corruption OECD study across southern and eastern africa

Illegal wildlife trade is a low risk, high-reward crime, making it attractive to criminal networks. These networks are able to pay public officials and other actors along the trade chain to turn a blind eye, provide inside information or abuse their position to enable illicit trade.

The findings from the OECD book Strengthening Governance and Reducing corruption Risks to Tackle Illegal Wildlife Trade provides a more structured understanding of the factors that enable illegal wildlife trade and strengthened evidence base pointing to the size and scale of the corruption risks in the countries studied.

The report offers a number of recommendations to countries, the donor community and to other actors on how to address and mitigate corruption risks that facilitate illegal wildlife trade.

A Multi-billion Dollar Market

Worldwide, illegal wildlife trade is one of the most profitable forms of illicit trade. It is a transnational organized crime forming a multi-billion dollar industry across national borders. IWT has been valued at up to $23 Billion (USD) annually. This is part of a wider category of environmental crimes, worth up to 258 Billion.

Corrupt actors at all levels, from park rangers to senior govenrment officials, play an important role in facilitating the global illegal wildlife trade. The OECD report documents the role that corruption plays along the trade chain.

OECD officials interviewed over 100 individuals from Government, NGOs, Foreign Delegations and other backgrounds for this study. The countries of focus are recognized as source and transit countries of Illegal Wildlife Trade.

The study focused on examples and case studies from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia

Corruption: an invisible force at the heart of a transnational crime

Interviews with experts and officials yielded a number of corroborated cases that highlights the modus operandi of poachers and wildlife traffickers in source and transit countries. From the evidence produced, it is clear that corrupt actors are central to the existing criminal strategy in illegal wildlfie trade.

Corruption crimes are not well documented. Typically, officials have been convicted, faced civil penalties or have been dismissed for their involvement in the poaching, sale or facilitation of wildlife crimes. Corruption related offenses and prosecutions are often not charged.

Along the trade chain, corrupt actors are in play from the instance of poaching until export. Bribes can be paid directly for facilitating the crime, or simply to ensure that no attention is paid to the activity or shipment in question.

In the criminal justice system, when traffickers face arrest, they will deploy resources and tactics, paying off officials in key positions to prevent a fair trial and conviction.

The nature of corruption makes data nearly impossible to collect. Therefore, the study relied on research, open source media mapping and interviews to identify the most important corruption risks along the trade chain.

In the field, park rangers and scouts are the first line of defense against poachers, but also the most vulnerable.

Park officers and rangers face strong challenges to monitor large portions of the country designated as conservation areas.

Corruption poses a significant risk in the field, as conservation officers are spread out, far from the centralized headquarters of management authorities.

Factors such as low or unstable pay; rotation of officers, and inadequate training and lack of internal integrity review or monitoring mechanisms contribute to increasing corruption risks among rangers in the field.

Officers have been caught assisting poachers, providing information or location data, or in some cases, offering their weapons and ammunition to assist in the hunting and killing of endangered species.

This is just the start of a global supply chain of corruption. From the kill to final sale, bribery is pervasive, and financed through transnational organized crime. Countries must do more to address this crime through international co-operation.

Major transport hubs are high-value choke-points for illegal wildlife trade, and corruption

At airports and major shipping ports, products such as ivory and rhino horn, pangolin and bushmeat are smuggled through corrupt networks of security officials who accept payments or are pressured into allowing goods to leave the country. According to global customs data, 60% of seizures occur at airports.

Acts of corruption can be brazen. In one instance, authorities reported that a corrupt official simply cut the electrical cord on a functioning x-ray machine to avoid detection of a shipment.

In other cases, well co-ordinated networks of corrupt actors work to facilitate the export of illicit goods in exchange for payments and bribes.

At airports, channels at airports such as "VIP" lanes and diplomatic channels pose risks of exploitation in the countries studied.

At major commercial shipping ports, certain corrupt officials and private sector freight-forwarder operators are known to conspire to facilitate the export of willdlife products, but they are not limited to just wildlife. Corrupt actors are known to faciltiate a number of other forms of illegal activities, from narcotics to human trafficking.

Investigators and Prosecutors face important challenges from corrupt actors

After arrest, actors in the illicit trade chain go into "survival mode" and begin to bribe, threaten and co-erce at the highest possible levels. This includes bribery via legal representatives and family members to investigators, prosecutors and even magistrates, involving greater sums of money.

Broken chains of custody, and loss of critical court documents or exhibits, delayed cases and easy granting of bail are all recognized to be potential likely manifestations of corruption

Other important gaps are equally, if not more important, however. Investigations that focus on illegal wildlife trade are generally limited, and do not benefit from multi-agency expertise or co-ordination.

Prosecutors' awareness and capacities to convict wildlife traffickers are also constrained by factors such as resource constraints, awareness and training for specific wildlife cases.


The OECD report on illegal wildlife trade provides a series of recommentations, these include:

  • Prioritising the most important choke-points along the trade chain and develop specific, targeted responses to each identified risk
  • Improving multi-agency cooperation, particularly between investigations and wildlife authorities
  • Working more closely with financial investigation authorities to target-money laundering offences and proceeds of crime.
  • leveraging international co-ordination, particularly with investigations in destination countries
  • Encouraging stronger participation from civil society to strengthen awareness of illegal wildlife crimes and real effects of corruption.
  • Foreign governments and NGOs are encouraged to strengthen external contributions to anti-corruption through wildlife trafficking awareness raising and training programmes for high-risk areas of work (e.g. prosecutions), and integrating corruption impact assessments into programming structures for evaluation and monitoring.

Mapping corruption

To complement its ongoing work on illegal wildlife trade, the OECD has begun to collect and map out a series of data sets related to the transnational flows of illegal wildlife products.

The OECD collected a number of references to corruption and illegal wildlife trade in the media. just over 300 cases of individual corruption instances in relation to Illegal wildlife were documented through open source reporting.

The OECD mapped these corruption risks through a geographic information system tool to display where these are most common, and what are the corruption narratives.

32% of the cases involved police officers

19% were government administrative officials

17% military

7% park rangers

While in the open source, the limited data collected provides a basic understanding of where corruption is taking place, and what levels of actors are typically involved in the reported cases.

Finding Meaning in Maps: Seizure Data on Illicit Trade

OECD also worked with data from the World Customs Organisation (WCO) on seizures for Illegal Wildlife Trade.

The data, composed of over 10,000 seizures recorded by a number of customs administrations around the world helps paint a picture of where seizures take place around the world.

The data also points to important gaps in data consistency and collection and the uneven and non-standardized reporting of wildlife crime worldwide.

Seizures of IWT paint a partial picture

Global customs data from WCO shows countries reporting the most seizures include Germany and the United Kingdom

The information shows that wildlife crime occurs on every continent. But the data visualisation does not take into account different customs inspection standards, different reporting standards and lack of information on real points of origin, and destination.

Combining data sources and layering other data (like global airport hubs and possible flight combinations) can paint meaningful pictures that are useful to understand what are some of the important hubs for transnational crime.

For example, Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa was found to be a likely major transit hub for illegal wildlife trade via air, after analysis conducted using global flight routing. This finding was determined despite not a single seizure having been reported in the WCO dataset in the country.

OECD research indicates that several major aiports such as Addis Ababa serve as important through-ways for IWT flows

OECD Work on Illicit Trade

Under the Aegis of the OECD High Level Risk Forum, the Task Force on Countering Illicit Trade promotes cooperation for tractable policy solutions to illicit trade in all its forms. Other studies from the Task Force include global estimates on the value of counterfeits, and works on the governance frameworks to counter illicit trade.

the OECD will continue to work on adding more data complement existing research.

A programme of work on East Asia is underways, where the OECD Task Force on Countering Illicit Trade is studying the institutional gaps that facilitate illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia. This next report will be available in 2019.

Created By
Michael Morantz OECD


Cover illustration ©Jeffrey Fisher Photo Credits ©Touran Reddaway http://www.tembacollection.com/rhino-conservation/

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