It is generally accepted, though there are different theories, that the first concentration of Covid-19 cases originated around a market in Wuhan, China. This market was one of many in the country selling live wild animals in cages in close proximity to slaughtered animals, fruit and vegetables. These conditions provide the opportunity for disease to spread. Many of the animals for sale in such markets are on sale legally, but Chinese Government officials have stated that the source of the disease was illegally traded wildlife.
The profitability of the illegal wildlife trade
The United Nations estimates that global illegal wildlife trade is worth between USD 7 billion and USD 23 billion a year, making it one of the most profitable criminal enterprises. Much of the animal trade (and the money) flows between Africa, as the source continent and Asia as the consumer. The demand includes the well-known elephant ivory, rhino horn and pangolin. All are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The urban myth in Vietnam that rhino horn can cure cancer pushed the price up such that per kilogram it was more expensive than gold. Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and although there is a legal market for pangolin in China, the majority consumed are trafficked from Africa.
Wildlife crime has been linked to drug, human and arms trafficking, as organised crime groups seek to exploit their established global transit networks. The trade drives corruption, damaging economies and exacerbating poverty and violence. The risks are therefore not only to endangered species and the planet's biodiversity, but to the rule of law, to economies and, as highlighted by the pandemic, to our health.
In November 2019, the Financial Action Task Force announced the illegal wildlife trade as a key priority, recognising the importance of addressing the financial motivation for the crime. In 2020 they published a paper including indicators of money laundering related to wildlife crime and including good examples of financial investigations into the wildlife trade, which is a useful resource for financial institutions.
Exploitation of wildlife and the depletion of biodiversity are also key factors within the ESG umbrella to which investors now look for sustainable returns. With growing emphasis on transparency on ESG factors, companies will need to double down in ensuring that they do not unwittingly become involved in supporting or facilitating wildlife crime and biodiversity depletion.
Action taken in the UAE
The UAE's unique position between East and West, Africa and Asia, with strategic air routes and hosting the largest port in the region at Jebel Ali, makes the country uniquely vulnerable for exploitation. It is a popular smuggling route and with such a dominant financial market, there is also the risk of associated illicit finance flows.
Recognising this, the UAE have taken a number of actions to tackle this problem. The UAE was the first Arab country to ban the ownership and trade of wild animals. UAE customs officers have partnered with the International Fund for Animal Welfare to provide training to detect animal trafficking and have made numerous seizures over a number of years. Between 2015 and 2018 it was reported that more than 50 different species of flora and fauna had been seized.
Companies in the global transportation sector should also be mindful that their services could be exploited by illicit actors to carry illegal wildlife products. The United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce provides a mechanism for sharing information between transport companies and law enforcement, to help break the global trade. DP World is a key partner to United for Wildlife, and Emirates have also joined this taskforce.
United for Wildlife recently launched a Middle East and North Africa Regional Chapter in February to provide local support for the regional response. United for Wildlife has also convened a Financial Taskforce, alongside the Transport Taskforce, to support information sharing amongst financial institutions. Global financial institutions with large operations in the UAE are already key members of the Financial Taskforce, with local financial institutions also signing up and joining the new Regional Chapter.
This article was originally featured in UAE Armed Forces Police and Society Magazine