Corruption has recently risen up the global wildlife conservation agenda with a series of international agreements highlighting the role of corruption in facilitating wildlife crime. Though there are notable exceptions, there is still a weak treatment in the literature of the problems of, and solutions to, wildlife crime from an anti-corruption perspective. Identifying and promoting effective interventions that get to the heart of the corruption problems associated with wildlife crime is a shared responsibility across the wildlife conservation, anti-corruption, anti-illicit trade, and anti-organized crime communities.

As well as reviewing existing empirical literature to explore the types and characteristics of corruption associated with wildlife crime, this U4 Issue identifies entry-points for addressing corruption in wildlife crime based on recent anti-corruption effectiveness literature. Some main conclusions are highlighted below, for a more indepth analysis of corruption in wildlife crime, download the PDF.

(For a shorter summary, see also Hard-won wisdom: what conservationists need to know about wildlife-related corruption IIED Briefing by Williams, A., Parry-Jones, R. and Roe, D., December 2016)

A way forward

The recent upsurge in illegal wildlife trade, particularly the large scale poaching of African elephants and rhinos (along with numerous other high value species including pangolins, big cats and sea turtles) is a major challenge to conservation in the 21st century. The role corruption plays in today’s illicit trade is reminiscent of its role in the illegal ivory trade from Southern Africa in the 1980s, and a stark reminder of its pervasive force and enduring nature.

Policy and practice responses are gradually recognizing the facilitating role of various forms of corruption associated with wildlife crime. But there is a long road ahead for the anti-corruption research, policy and practice communities to better grapple with the challenges of corruption in wildlife crime. There is a pressing need for more empirical evidence focused specifically on understanding the prevalence and types of corruption. The incentives and motivations for engaging in corruption, particularly among law enforcement and other public office holders charged with protecting wildlife, need to be the subject of detailed further analysis. The objective should be to develop bottom-up analysis that assesses various wildlife product ‘value chains’ and the corruption risks and vulnerabilities associated with them.

As further analyses of corruption risks in the wildlife sector become available, they are likely to underline why taking no action is highly undesirable from a global wildlife conservation as well as a global sustainable development perspective. Corruption’s impacts on species and livelihoods could get considerably worse unless anti-corruption measures become more effective. To reach this goal, further collaboration between the anti-corruption and wildlife conservation communities is necessary, given the potential for crucial ‘blind-spots’ within both these communities.

Collaboration should revolve around the development of corruption risk assessment and management approaches specifically tailored to wildlife conservation. The intention would be to provide a framework so that integrating contextualized information about corruption in wildlife crime from the bottom-up becomes a routine component of wildlife conservation interventions. In particular, considerable existing knowledge among wildlife conservation practitioners and those engaged in law enforcement efforts for wildlife crimes should be systematically harnessed.

Enhanced contextual knowledge generated via formalized corruption risk assessments in the wildlife sector could constitute a powerful tool for wildlife conservationists pressing for reforms in areas beyond the immediate realm of wildlife policy and practice. The results of corruption risk assessments could particularly further inform ongoing dialogues with national authorities and bodies with responsibilities for governing, monitoring, and enforcing laws and regulations in the wildlife sector, complementing existing reporting procedures such as those stipulated by CITES. Such results could also help identify new stakeholders or agents of change, or ways to approach old problems via new means. The results could also help distinguish between problems that involve some form of corruption, and other types of problems linked less to corruption and more to crime or mismanagement. The availability of contextualized information via corruption risk assessments could help wildlife conservation interventions avoid pitfalls that have plagued many past anti-corruption interventions: the wholesale transplanting of a particular approach (e.g. institutional designs of anti-corruption agencies) from one context to another, with little regard for underlying political economy dynamics. It may also be possible to improve understanding of why politicians in wildlife-rich countries are not acting to safeguard their wildlife resource base to meet development targets.

A main principle behind corruption risk assessment, identification and management is to enable a process of choosing which corruption risks are most important to address, and devising credible means for managing them. The assumption is that, given the prevalence of various types of corruption in wildlife sectors, it will not be feasible to address each possible risk at once. A focus can, however, be placed on identifying and targeting human, institutional and financial resources towards the most serious corruption threats to wildlife conservation goals in particular contexts.