Anti-laundering options that can tame poachers

Sudan at Ol Pejeta conservancy. File Photo | JOSEPH KANYI  

What you need to know:

  • Scale of the trade in illegal wildlife is such that criminals rely on formal financial systems to launder their money.

The death last week of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a stark reminder of how vulnerable and rare African wildlife is.

Just a few years ago, some experts estimated illegally-traded rhino horn to be of higher value by weight than either gold or cocaine at $65,000 per kilogramme in consumer markets.

Behind the poachers on the ground are international profit-making networks that threaten African wildlife and murder anyone who gets in the way.

The ongoing trial of eight individuals in connection with the murder of Wayne Lotter, the anti-poaching investigator, who was killed in Tanzania in August 2017 shows how far the poaching networks will go to protect their criminal trade.

It also shows that with determination, inter-agency cooperation and good use of financial investigatory tools, inroads can be made against the poachers.

Demand for ivory in consumer markets, particularly in Asia, needs to be addressed but simultaneously we must fundamentally change the cost-benefit equation for criminal leaders and drive them out of business.

Over the past four years the Tanzanian serious crimes investigation has arrested nearly 900 individuals involved in ivory poaching yet the trade continues.

Convicting the leaders who run the networks is still rare which is where financial measures and investigations need to be used more systematically, just as they are used to tackle the funding of al Shabaab, drugs, human trafficking and other organised crime.

Anti-money laundering measures and financial investigation that trace the money can help to identify the accomplices and ringleaders of those who are caught red-handed; identify and seize laundered assets and property; track the movement of individuals; link suspects to criminality and has played a critical role in successful convictions.

The scale of the trade in illegal wildlife is such that criminals have to rely on formal financial systems to launder their money — through banks, money exchanges or mobile-based transfers — and this makes them vulnerable to regulation and detection.

There are three areas governments and law enforcement agencies can improve on to deter would-be poachers who want to launder their money.

These are the foundations of our EU-funded programme to help ten East African countries prevent money laundering and terrorist funding. First, better understand the specific methods and channels used by poachers and launderers and tighten up loopholes.

Second, it is about increasing the threat of being caught, convicted and financially punished. Often it is only the lower level poachers and traders that are convicted in Africa but the sentencing of ivory smuggling leader, Feisal Mohammed, for 20 years in 2016, following cooperation between Tanzanian and Kenyan authorities, was a rare instance of cross-border cooperation and illustrates what can be done.

Third, authorities can increase the costs of being caught as well as its likelihood. Forfeiture of assets is key to ensuring crime does not pay. As well as putting the criminals under pressure, the money systems on which they depend can be held responsible.

Too often in East Africa the interception of an ivory shipment and capture of low-level poachers is the end rather than the beginning of an investigation.

Law enforcers need to see poachers as part of a organised criminal system. The Akasha brothers, who were extradited from Kenya and charged in the US with being ringleaders of a major heroin smuggling network, were also linked to 30 tonnes of ivory seizures as a result of extensive undercover operations by US investigators.

Some East African countries’ financial investigation units are too small and under-resourced for the scale of the criminal economy they are mandated to uncover. There also needs to be greater powers for investigators to extract confidential data from financial institutions.

The former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, compared financial information and forensic accounting to the impact fingerprints and DNA brought about in criminal investigations in previous centuries.

In the lead up to this year’s London conference on wildlife crime there is an opportunity to focus attention on using these tools with greater effect to disrupt a global problem.

Money laundering and related organised crime, such as wildlife crime, is by its nature impossible to accurately quantify. Recent estimates have put the economy of money laundering at around 2-5 per cent of global GDP, or in the trillions of US dollars.

Concentrated in certain sectors in some countries money laundering can undermine investment, jobs and economic growth.

In poaching, the damage to people and animals, and the scale of profits involved, are all too visible. The sight of bloody carcasses of elephants and heaps of seized ivory reflects the cost to African wildlife and how the sale of a country’s national treasures continues to profit just a few.

David Hotte is an EU financial investigation and anti-money laundering expert.

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