In a world where progressive opinion is increasingly against overpolicing, conservationists are demanding new laws criminalising the illegal killing, trapping, transport and sale of wildlife, and longer prison terms and asset seizure where these crimes are already defined; they’re in favor of dedicating more resources to sophisticated investigative techniques, such as using financial forensics to trace illicit money flows connected with illegal wildlife trade. And even as progressive activists oppose the use of carceral language to describe sex work and drug trafficking, conservation activists are begging the world to understand certain wildlife trades as serious, organized crime.
This campaign gathered a sense of extreme urgency around 2008-11, when two poaching crises shook Africa: the mass slaughter of rhinos, mostly in South Africa, and of elephants, mostly in East and Central Africa. NGOs and journalists conducted their own investigations into these illegal trades, and learned that they were driven by criminal networks in the booming economies of East and Southeast Asia. In the face of what they saw as law-enforcement indifference, some NGOs turned vigilante, secretly recording traffickers implicating themselves and government officials in sting operations. At the same time, rich Western states poured aid into elite anti-trafficking law enforcement units in Africa, while parts of the UN system launched a global upgrade to wildlife crime investigation.
Last month, Tanzania’s Director of Public Prosecution announced that his courts had sent “a message to the world” in the form of the imprisonment of Yang Fenglan, a 72-year-old woman otherwise known as the “Ivory Queen.” Fenglan, the owner of a popular restaurant who’d been considered a pillar of the Chinese business community in Dar es Salaam, was convicted of leading a criminal syndicate that trafficked 860 elephant tusks from east Africa to supply China’s consumer demand for decorative ivory products.
Tanzania’s elephant herds were amongst the hardest hit by the poaching crisis. According to a government census, the population decreased by 60%, or some 60,000 animals, between 2009 and 2014. The Environmental Investigation Agency used the word ‘industrial’ to describe the scale of the killing, which gets at the rapidity and relentlessness with which elephants were harvested for the ivory trade. ‘Industrial’ however doesn’t really get at what the slaughter meant for the elephants, who live mostly in herds with complex social bonds approximating a culture, nor that they are capable of experiencing the emotions of fear, panic and grief. Not long ago there were credible fears that Tanzania’s elephants would shortly be poached to levels of “population collapse.”
Elephant poaching in East Africa hasn’t stopped entirely, but today it is thought to be taking place at what you might call an artisanal level, and herds are recovering. The full story of the turnaround of the East African elephant poaching crisis is bigger than just what happened in court last week; Mongabay reports that more than 2300 arrests were made in connection with elephant poaching and trafficking in Tanzania through its National Taskforce on Anti-Poaching (NTAP). More important maybe is that major cases have targeted the actual trafficking networks, not just the poachers, and in addition to the prosecution of Fenglan’s network, law enforcement investigations dismantled the powerful Kromah network based in Uganda and operating from West Africa to Mozambique, the Shuidong network operating in Tanzania, Mozambique and Nigeria, and the Lin network in Malawi. These cases appear to have been crucial to putting an end to the massacre. While Fenglan herself is suspected to have been lower-ranking than media made her out to be—and potentially, perhaps, the fall-gal for more serious players in China or Tanzania—the case that convicted her bore many of the aspects activists had been calling for: an intelligence-led investigation, interagency collaboration, and a conviction that rested at least partially on the examination of financial flows between Fenglan and her accomplices.
These east African law-enforcement prosecutions stand in contrast, for example, to the South African rhino poaching crisis, where law enforcement has not yet managed to crack the key networks, and the state leans instead on military tactics aimed at curtailing incursions by low-level poachers to defend national parks. Now, instead of steadily recovering rhino numbers, there is a rather acrimonious debate about whether lower absolute rhino poaching numbers should be attributed to the militarisation of the parks—or if the decimation of rhino populations has simply made it harder for poachers to find them in the wild.
What are we to make of the dissonance between the cooling of the War on Drugs, and the boiling-up of the Takedown of Wildlife Traffickers? One important distinction to bear in mind is that the demand for wildlife products has proven, repeatedly, to be more fungible than the appetite for drugs. This opens up better prospects for long-term success, provided that trade can be slowed down, at least somewhat, while cultural attitudes shift.
That cultural attitudes can shift is superbly demonstrated by the ivory trade itself. To abbreviate an ancient history – stretching back, at least, to early dynastic Egypt – the acceptability of the human use of ivory has plummeted in the last hundred and fifty years. Not just in Europe and North America, whose thirst for everything from ivory billiard balls to piano keys drove the 19th century decimation of African elephant herds, but also in China, especially since the Chinese government closed domestic ivory markets in 2017.
Criminalisation always sheds light on the dual nature of law. One side is conservative: “the law, in its majestic equality,” Anatole France said, “forbids the rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” Here, the law’s key function is to protect existing power structures and preserve the status quo. These laws will be used in a conservative way if all they do is criminalise the communities from which poachers are recruited.
But the law can also be radical, not only reflecting society’s values but creating them. Which is to say, not only that these laws might actually work on their own merits, but that in the process there is a more philosophical, or maybe political, dimension to them. That is, quite simply, to determine, again and again, who is a victim and who is a perpetrator and what is a just punishment; the work, ultimately, of defining and defending a new taboo.