The first-ever Public Hearing of the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) called for immediate action by the Vietnamese Government to prosecute the criminal network behind the Nhi Khe illegal wildlife trade hub.
Viet Nam hosted the 3rd International Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, in which more than 20 countries made formal commitments to take collective action to end poaching and wildlife trafficking.
The World Bank’s Global Wildlife Program released an analysis of international funding to tackle illegal wildlife trade showing that 24 international donors committed US$1.3 billion from 2010 to June 2016 to fund 1,105 projects in 60 countries.
15 November 2016: The first-ever Public Hearing of the Wildlife Justice Commission (WJC) presented evidence from a one-year investigation into the trafficking and processing of endangered wildlife parts and products through the Nhi Khe hub in Viet Nam, estimated at US$53.1 million.
At the close of the two-day meeting, a five-member independent ‘Accountability Panel’ recommended immediate actions by the Vietnamese Government to finalize the investigation and prosecute the criminal network involved. In the same week, Viet Nam hosted the 3rd International Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, issuing the ‘Hanoi Statement on Illegal Wildlife Trade,’ in which more than 20 countries made formal commitments to take collective action to end poaching and wildlife trafficking.
The WJC Public Hearing brought together approximately 300 participants at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands, on 14-15 November 2016. Participants included representatives of wildlife conservation and advocacy organizations, specialized intergovernmental organizations, legal experts, researchers, media and the broader public. The WJC was established in 2015 as an independent, not-for-profit organization that seeks to investigate cases of wildlife trafficking around the world in accordance with the best law enforcement practice, and encourage national authorities to prosecute the criminal networks involved.
In her opening remarks, Olivia Swaak-Goldman, WJC Executive Director, explained that the aim of the Public Hearing, which was focused on Nhi Khe village in Viet Nam, was not to pass judgement on the Vietnamese Government, but to demonstrate the massive scale of illegal wildlife trade and to make a convincing case for urgent and decisive action to prosecute the criminal networks involved. She expressed hope that the Hearing would contribute to increased awareness among law enforcement authorities that wildlife crimes should be taken as seriously as drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
WJC Executive Director expressed hope that the Hearing would contribute to increased awareness among law enforcement authorities that wildlife crimes should be taken as seriously as drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
Marcus Asner, Member of the WJC Advisory Council, led a “cross examination” of members of the investigative team and other expert witnesses throughout the first day of the Hearing. Pauline Verheij, senior legal investigator, WJC, presented highlights from the 5,000-page ‘Map of Facts,’ garnered during the year-long investigation. She showed excerpts of video and audio recordings, bank account details and offers of animal parts and products, primarily rhino, elephant, tiger and pangolins, including on social media. Verheij reported that the investigation had prepared detailed case files of 51 “Persons of Interest,” including shop owners, guides and interpreters operating in Nhi Khe village and across the Chinese border. She described a “surprisingly open” trading environment in the village, with shop owners openly displaying and advertising illegal wildlife products on the street. The testimonies also pointed to the decentralized nature of organized crime networks in Viet Nam, as well as restrictions on the WJC, as a non-governmental organization, in following through with some of the leads, as key challenges faced in identifying the “kingpins” that are likely driving illegal wildlife trade.
After reviewing the evidence provided and engaging in an exchange with the investigators and other participants, the Accountability Panel presented its conclusions and recommendations focused on immediate actions that the Government could take, including to: conduct an investigation targeting the individuals identified in the Map of Facts and identify the criminal organizations involved; review existing statutes in order to curtail ancillary crimes linked to organized wildlife crime; ensure the prompt entry into force of the revised Penal Code and enact laws to introduce civil asset seizures; establish a witness protection programme as well as procedures to protect whistleblowers; pursue tax violations of individuals and illegal trade conducted on social media; and enhance cooperation with the Chinese Government and other international stakeholders, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN Convention against Corruption and Interpol.
Viet Nam did not participate formally at the event, but indicated that it would send an observer to follow the proceedings. On the second day, the WJC outlined activities undertaken so far by the Vietnamese Government to curtail the criminal networks.
Over the two days, various representatives of intergovernmental organizations highlighted diverse perspectives in advancing action against wildlife trafficking. Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC International, a non-governmental expert network that investigates and analyzes wildlife trade, noted that China currently represents the largest market for ivory, and Viet Nam for rhino horn, and estimated the global illegal wildlife trade at around US$5-20 billion annually. He emphasized that Viet Nam also hosts a growing domestic market, with rhino horn promoted as a means to reaffirm social bonds and status, in addition to its wide use in traditional medicine. He also highlighted the link between the growing practice of presenting rhino horn as a gift to government officials, with instances of corruption in the trade.
Nadav Ossendryver, South African Youth Rhino Ambassador, discussed the “Operation Game Change” campaign to educate Vietnamese youth, students and local communities about poaching and wildlife trafficking. He pointed to the general lack of awareness that animals are killed in the harvesting of horns and ivory and emphasized the need for more education about wildlife in its natural habitat.
Highlighting the day-to-day challenges of protecting wildlife in Africa, Lawrence Munro, field operation manager of African Parks, described what he called the “rhino war” in Kruger National Park, South Africa, where over 800 rhinos are killed each year in this park alone. He showed a harrowing video of a rhino, still conscious and in intense pain, moments after its horns and face had been brutally hacked away by poachers, and emphasized that rangers and their families have to live with the long-term trauma this causes, as well as the consequences of “shooting people and seeing your people shot.”
Judge Motoo Noguchi, Chair of the Board of Directors of the International Criminal Court’s Trust Fund for Victims, and Member of the WJC Advisory Council commended the WJC’s innovative approach in encouraging relevant governments to take action on prosecution and punishment, and said once the mechanism becomes functional, it could have a “tremendous impact” on international criminal justice.
In a separate event, the Viet Nam Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, with support from the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, convened the Hanoi Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade the 17-18 November 2016. Initiated by Prince William of the UK, the conference was the third of a series of annual conferences, launched in London, UK, in 2014, with the second conference taking place in Kasane, Botswana, in 2015. The Conference issued the Hanoi Statement on Illegal Wildlife Trade, reaffirming the commitment of signatory countries in four main areas: eradicating the market for illegal wildlife products; ensuring effective legal frameworks and deterrents; strengthening law enforcement; and building sustainable livelihoods and economic development. The Statement recognizes and welcomes diverse initiatives by intergovernmental and non-governmental actors and calls for comprehensive and collaborative implementation to ensure action at all points in the illegal supply chain in source, transit and destination countries. The Statement further calls for a coherent approach in tackling the three key areas of intervention, namely: strengthened legislation and enforcement; demand reduction for illegally traded wildlife; and sustainable use and economic development.
In her address, UK’s Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom announced a new UK-China arrangement to train African border forces to spot and tackle smugglers and said the UK would also work with Vietnamese authorities to improve border security, including working with airports and airlines to stop smugglers trafficking illegal goods out of the country. She also announced that the UK would host the next international conference in 2018 to ensure international commitments to stop the illegal wildlife trade are delivered.
John Scanlon, Secretary-General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), noted that the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime is “fully operational” and actively providing coordinated support at the country level to help authorities fight transnational organized criminal groups. While lauding recent decisions and mandates on tackling illegal wildlife trade, including by the UN General Assembly (UNGA), CITES, UN Crime Commission and UN Environment Assembly, he stressed that the fight will ultimately be won or lost “on the frontline.”
Ahead of the Hanoi Conference, the World Bank’s Global Wildlife Program released its first report of international donor funding for combating illegal wildlife trade in Africa and Asia. Titled ‘Analysis of international funding to tackle illegal wildlife trade,’ the study provides a baseline to track future donor funding commitments and support additional donor coordination efforts, following calls for enhanced efforts in this regard at the first two conferences. The report finds that a total of US$1.3 billion was committed by 24 international donors between 2010 and June 2016, funding 1,105 projects in 60 different countries and various regional and global projects. The main areas of support were listed as protected area management, law enforcement, including intelligence-led operations and transnational coordination, and sustainable use and alternative livelihoods.
In a reaction to the Hanoi Statement, Thinh Van Ngoc, Country Director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) office in Viet Nam welcomed the Vietnamese Government’s offer to host the conference, but said high-level government commitments, detailed action plans and timelines for delivery on commitments were still missing. Colman, O’Criodain, WWF Wildlife Practice Policy Manager, said organizations working in the Greater Mekong Region had hoped for strong commitments to close the most visible part of the illegal wildlife trade chain, “the markets, restaurants and shops that openly sell ivory, tiger skins, rhino horn, pangolin scales and dozens of other endangered species.” He said it was regrettable that more countries across the region “did not use this golden opportunity” to announce specific time-bound measures to close domestic ivory markets and tiger farms. [WJC Public Hearing Website] [IISD RS Summary Report and Daily Coverage] [Hanoi Statement on Illegal Wildlife Trade] [Hanoi Conference Website] [UK Government Press Release on Hanoi Conference] [CITES Press Release] [World Bank Press Release] [UNEP Press Release] [Analysis of International Funding to Tackle Illegal Wildlife Trade] [WWF Press Release]