The collective response to wildlife crime is greater than ever. But while long-term strategies are important, criminals often strike without warning, and enforcement agencies must act without hesitation, to preserve evidence and apprehend suspects. Yet despite occasional successes, and an array of activities under the umbrella of wildlife crime, it is difficult to see evidence of the urgent response necessary to tackle these crimes in progress.
The March Massacres
March 2017 saw one of the most significant series of organised poaching incidents in recent years - yet the global response has been underwhelming. Between Wednesday 8 and Thursday 9 March, poachers shot dead thirteen rhinos across eastern South Africa. The crimes taking place within a 24-hour period, local experts believe this was the most concentrated series of attacks since the current rhino poaching crisis emerged some ten years ago.
The five crime scenes were hundreds of kilometres apart, suggesting the killings could not be the actions of a single poaching gang. And while it may be premature to assume the incidents are linked, the chances of five discrete groups heading out to five separate locations in the same brief time window are slim. Even if the poaching gangs did not know each other, there is a strong likelihood the same traffickers or buyers procured the killings, and the horns will eventually converge in processing establishments close to the end markets in Vietnam or China.
In a climate where dozens of inter-governmental and conservation organisations are now funded to address wildlife crime, it is baffling these crimes, and so many others like them, were not met with a more robust and immediate international response.
"The Golden Hour"
Major crime investigators work on the concept of the “golden hour” - a period following the commission of offence when evidence-gathering opportunities must be exploited, and the more time passes, the more likely it is evidence and investigative opportunities may be lost. Early action, and inaction, have long-term consequences.
One would hope local investigators swiftly preserved the crime scenes, gathered physical evidence, and started enquiries to identify suspects. Ownership of the investigation at this stage arguably rests with the South African authorities, but while local actions are important, transnational investigations must take place across the trafficking range and help should be sought from international organisations to alert and catalyse action in other countries.
But should there really be a need to solicit a response from Asia-based law enforcement agencies, knowing that the commodity, and therefore the crime, will move into their territory and requires interdiction on their part? Are Asian law enforcement agencies doing enough to support their African counterparts?
Theatre of Enforcement
There is a proliferation of activities taking place across the globe in the name of counter-wildlife trafficking and no shortage of good intention, individual enthusiasm and institutional commitment. We see countless pledges, promises, petitions, pre-planned operations, demand-reduction films, celebrity and ambassador engagement, awareness-raising, education, training, day of this and the other. The energy driving these initiatives has garnered extraordinary levels of attention - but I can’t help feeling we are procrastinating, avoiding the difficult stuff, stumbling from one good-looking activity to another without tackling the serious criminality at the hub of the problem, or at least not at any detectable pace.
It often feels we are witnessing the theatre of enforcement - looks great but lacks substance - and when incidents like these rhino killings take place, everyone stands around with hands in pockets and heads down. For all the posturing, when it comes to tackling the frightening and real daily occurrence of wildlife crime, we are paralysed, exposed as imposters.
There are some impressive examples of hard-gained convictions, and success stories in reducing incidents. Some clandestine activities may be underway, conceived by organisations not seeking fame and glory. And there are those who risk injury, and those who have lost their lives tackling poachers. They deserve to be better supported and respected through the prosecution of the traffickers driving these crimes.
So what did happen in the aftermath of this latest collection of poaching incidents? Were late-night coffee-fuelled conference calls held at unsociable hours, by the Transport Taskforce, ICCWC, and ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Network, to ensure increased vigilance amongst their members and support investigations? Were alerts broadcast across the INTERPOL and World Customs Organization networks? Are INTERPOL or the Wildlife Asia teams running operations right now to detain the perpetrators? After almost a decade of pre-planned operations there must be a spontaneous, emergency plan - after all law enforcement is not an annual event. And waiting passively for seizures is no longer acceptable - we should have evolved beyond that years ago.
This Is Not A Drill
The most important action required now is to seek out and gather intelligence in both Africa and Asia. Connected or not, many individuals will have knowledge of these crimes, and criminals tend to be terrible at keeping secrets. Informants need to be tasked, social media, widely used by wildlife traffickers, must to be monitored. Surveillance of known suspects should increase. These are all low-cost, high-value activities within the capacity of even the most cash-strapped enforcement agency.
These recent incidents were not a drill. For those witnessing atrocities on the ground they are real and devastating. Assuming the traffickers are still on the run, trying to conceal and transport the bloody horns, there may still be time to respond. But there will be a next time, and a time after.
Despite claims to the contrary, sources tell me wildlife crime is on the rise. It is one of the few truly time-critical global crimes and we are dragging our heels. The desperate need for tangible, robust enforcement has never been more urgent. And with a world facing new crises, wildlife crime may never become a priority. We either act now, or never.