Trafficking a crisis

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the world’s airlines furloughed staff and moved planes to vast desert lots as airports and roads became eerily quiet. For an industry reliant on transport, it would be easy to assume illegal wildlife trade (IWT) would also contract sharply.

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In reality though, IWT criminals became creative and pivoted to different business models including online ordering and fulfilment. Retail passengers were replaced with cargo ships and trains and shipment sizes actually increased.

"Undoubtedly COVID-19 has drawn new attention to the role of wild animals in the global supply chain.”

In March, 41 rhino horns were intercepted being shipped as air cargo indicating potential stockpiling. Similarly, in Hong Kong customs officials seized record numbers of illegal shark fins in April and May from an estimated 38,500 sharks.

While illicit traffic may now be more visible to authorities and border checks have increased, the real concern is ongoing seizures confirm continued demand for illegal contraband. Criminals are willing to bear the heightened risk because potential penalties don’t outweigh the substantial reward.

Origins of a crisis

Sadly, many countries still lack laws to prevent the importation of banned wildlife and illegal products. On top of this, existing legislation and penalties are inconsistent and difficult to enforce. A report by the Basel Institute of Governance stated “COVID-19 will not significantly reduce the flows of IWT and indeed could present new alternative distribution methods given the lucrative nature of the business”.

But not all of the impacts of COVID-19 have been negative. The global nature of the pandemic has introduced a different and, some would argue, more pressing set of considerations, generating an urgency, scale and focus that has not been seen before.

While the debate continues as to the precise source of the virus, the widely agreed upon narrative is that COVID-19 was, like many other similar diseases such as SARS and MERS, a zoonotic disease that most likely originated from a wet food market selling both legal and illegal wildlife.

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Will for change

Between 1960 and 2004, approximately 335 emerging diseases were zoonotic and directly linked to habitat destruction and ecosystem disruption arising from urbanisation, environmental degradation and rapidly increasing and moving human populations. With 70 per cent of emerging infectious diseases coming from wild animals, the need to tackle what has become a global threat from both a legal and illegal wildlife trade perspective is key.

The global effect of COVID-19 has been unprecedented including health, social and economic impacts on a scale not experienced previously. This is driving a more visible and focused political and social will for change.

Public and private sector partnerships and specialist groups – including the United for Wildlife (UfW) Financial Action Taskforce - are raising their individual and collective voices domestically, regionally and internationally to highlight that IWT is the fourth largest financial crime globally and a crime with downstream impacts of such a magnitude that can no longer be ignored.

Industry bodies have all increased their communication and awareness raising over the past few months and are pressing for real action. Sadly, the expectation is that other zoonotic transmitted diseases are more, not less, likely in the future.

Undoubtedly COVID-19 has drawn new attention to the role of wild animals in the global supply chain. Epidemiological bridges bringing humans and animals in closer proximity are an ongoing threat to both biodiversity and human health. The reopening of disrupted air links risks a return to pre-pandemic demand and supply levels which will heighten the associated disease risk.

It is imperative any response works at an individual, national and international level and includes a holistic, integrated and sustainable model that delivers the protection of endangered species, habitats, health, global economies - and ultimately people’s lives - quickly.

Kim Downs is Fraud and ABAC Lead and Michelle Cantwell is Senior Intelligence Analyst, Financial Crime Threat Management at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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