The Uncertain Scale of Conservation Crime

According to a rapid assessment funded by INTERPOL and UN Environment, violations of conservation-related laws are estimated to account for between US$91 and $259 billion in illicit revenues annually (Nellemann et al. 2016).

I find this statistic to be an important jumping off point to talk about the crime crisis now facing the global conservation movement. Because this number, ideally, should help us put some perspective to the problem, shouldn’t it? Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of reason to think that our numbers are failing us.

To think through this, let’s look a little bit more closely at the official numbers and their sources.

The Official Numbers

To repeat, the latest major estimate of global conservation crime is that it accounts for US$91 and $259 billion in illicit revenues annually (Nellemann et al. 2016). To put this in context, the authors of this estimate point out that it represents between 1 and 2 times the value of official development assistance given by the global community to poorer countries (p. 17). And worse still, the authors find evidence that conservation crimes are only growing, possibly in the range of least 5–7% annually, yet global GDP grows much slower at an estimated rate of 2.4% annually (p. 39).

Broken down by category, you can see that the official numbers are also inclusive of a wide range of activities: the illegal mining of gold, diamonds, and other minerals, the illegal fishing of both commercial and protected species, illegal logging of protected forests, trafficking in hazardous chemical and electronic waste, and illegal hunting and trade of animal and plant products (see below, and p. 20).

Taking the numbers largely at face value, the authors of the rapid assessment conclude that the international community must respond with increased effort to establish the rule of conservation-related laws at regional and global scales.  Among other things, they argue for a significant increase in formal law enforcement activities, legal reforms, coordinated planning across jurisdictions, funding for capacity building, alternative livelihood programs, and consumer awareness education (p. 93).

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Digging Deeper

While the recommendations of UNEP/INTERPOL funded report are sure to be applicable to many contexts, there are clear deficiencies in the analysis. In short, the underlying data is pretty rough. And by ‘rough,’ I mean...REALLY ROUGH.

So here is a quick dip into the data sources underpinning the estimate of US$ 91-258 billion, with links to decide for yourself. As I think you’ll see, most of the underlying data appear to have been ‘plucked out of the air’ over the last few decades and then recycled from policy report to policy report.

  1. Illegal logging and trade. Following the references in the report, I honestly cannot say where the estimate of 10-30% for illegal timber supply comes from. The citation for this figure is simply the research team’s preceding cited estimate from a 2014 report (link), which links to another cited estimate by the team in a 2012 report (link), which in turn links to another grey lit report for UNEP/INTERPOL from 2009 (link). And in this final link, I can’t find any analysis that would help me arrive at 10-30%. In fact, the closest thing I can find is a reference to an internal estimate by INTERPOL that 20-50% of all marketed timber products are illegal (p. 5).

  2. Illegal fishing. Here the sub-estimate of US$ 11-23.5 billion is clearly drawn from a widely cited scientific article (Agnew et al. 2009). But this study is in fact quite problematic for contemporary use. The most recent input data for the study came from over a decade ago (2003) and the authors broadly concluded that there was a declining trend in illegal catches in this period. Furthermore, the study was based on "detailed reports from published scientific literature and in-country specialist studies” (p. 5), rather than official enforcement data. Just to point out how problematic this is, the authors made no attempt to explain what made a catch "illegal," such as by considering a range of specific fishing violations (e.g., area violations, permit violations, quota limit violations).

  3. Illegal Mining. Here the authors cite an industry estimate that 1–4% of global mineral trade is illegal, which then allows production of an estimate that illegal mining accounts for US$ 12-48 billion annually. Yet where does this figure come from? If you look at the two citations, you’ll quickly find that one is not correctly referenced (“GA 2012”), while the other never provided a percentage estimate and only estimated a yearly loss of US$ 2.3 due to the illegal gold trade in just three countries (GFI, 2011, p. 62). This is far from the percentages and estimated values for illegal mining in the report!

  4. Illegal Waste. Here the authors estimate illegal waste to account for US$ 10-12 billion. Following the citations, I can see this figure is drawn from an OECD report with a table drawn from Lawson (2007) which references a completely uncited figured from the U.S. Department of Justice (2000, p. 30). So really, where did this come from?

  5. Poaching. Here things get even murkier. The $7-10 billion estimate cited in Wyler and Sheik (2008, p. 1) is in fact drawn from a State Department press release (2012)!!! And no, of course, this press release provides no additional citation. Similarly, the data from Haken (2011, p. 11) links back only to news articles and interviews.

All in all, what I find is that our contemporary “best-available” estimates of annual conservation crime revenues are really unscientific. This is something other experts have even hinted at before, such as wildlife crime experts working for the UNODC who more or less buried this gem in a report on conservation crime: “many figures circulated in various reports and articles are the result of guesswork rather than of systematic analysis” (UNODC, 2012, p. 169).

So What Does This Mean for Addressing Conservation Crimes?

Given the statistical “beehive” I’ve kicked in this post, I think the first thing to do is to put this in perspective. Illegal activity is, by its very nature, difficult to monitor, so we should always expect some difference between official crime statistics and actual rates of crime occurrence (what is referred to as “the dark figure of crime”).

However, what is different here is that that where official statistics are typically kept for “more serious” crimes (e.g., murder, sexual assault, kidnapping), there really aren’t official statistics kept for most conservation crimes. The exceptions really only include poaching numbers for certain charismatic wildlife, like African elephants (e.g., CITES, 2016) and a few rich countries import seizure records (e.g., the US’s LEMIS database).

So in the realm of conservation, we can do much better with our numbers, such as through specialized social surveys or more standardized enforcement record-keeping. We may not get perfect numbers, but more accurate measurement of crime is how we will ensure that resources are directed to the right places for the right impacts. How serious is the conservation crime crisis? Is it really getting worse? How do we cost-effectively resolve it? We won’t have those answers until we raise our analytical standards.

Selected Reference

  • Nellemann, C., Henriksen, R., Kreilhuber, A., Stewart, D., Kotsovou, M., Raxter, P., ... & Barrat, S. (2016). The rise of environmental crime: A growing threat to natural resources, peace, development and security. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Open-Access Link.

Header Photo Credit: Mwangi Kirubi, Wikimedia Commons. Link.