COMBATTING THE ILLEGAL WILDLIFE TRADE: Disrupting maritime trafficking of wildlife through African seaports

Worldwide, wildlife crime is a serious threat to biodiversity, economies, and communities.

Generating up to US$23bn annually, this transnational crime is the 4th most lucrative illegal trade after narcotics, human trafficking, and counterfeiting.

COVID illuminates the potential risk to human health and economies from poorly regulated or illegal trade in wildlife.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread global disruption, some central aspects of pandemic response – including lockdowns and travel restrictions – are also impacting wildlife poaching and trafficking supply chains.

Alarmingly, some areas have reported an increase in wildlife poaching due to reduced law enforcement patrols and losses of rural jobs during lockdowns. Elsewhere, some reduction in poaching has been observed, and is attributed to travel restrictions and supply chain disruptions.

For wildlife traffickers, reductions in commercial passenger flights have disrupted air smuggling routes; these transient reductions must be bolstered by enhancing attention to air cargo and maritime shipments.

Key to combatting the illicit wildlife trade: concerted efforts and multi-stakeholder collaboration targeting shifting strategies by wildlife traffickers who are exploiting new vulnerabilities due to COVID-19 disruptions.

Due to the large volumes of goods involved, coupled with a relatively minimal risk of detection and arrest, seaports are key transit gateways for illegal wildlife products. According to the Elephant Trade Information System, up to 72% of ivory is trafficked by sea.

Targeting these maritime transit points and strengthening law enforcement co-ordination and co-operation with the private sector can disrupt trafficking networks and decrease profits and incentives for wildlife traffickers.

Mombasa port in Kenya, and Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar ports in Tanzania, are key points in Eastern Africa for maritime trade with the rest of the world. The port of Mombasa is known as the main gateway from East and Central Africa to Asia.

These ports are also key exit points for the trafficking of African wildlife.

However, it is estimated that on average only about 20% of trafficked ivory from Africa is actually caught and seized when shipped through ports.

In May 2018, UNDP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) initiated the Reducing Maritime Trafficking of Wildlife between Africa and Asia project. Spanning 36 months, this US$2 million initiative is reducing maritime trafficking of wildlife between Africa and Asia by strengthening wildlife law enforcement at ports and increasing co-operation between ports and other maritime stakeholders.

Targeting critical routes and transit points between Africa and Asia is a powerful means of interdicting.

The project is part of the GEF-financed, World Bank-led Global Wildlife Program (GWP), which brings together 29 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America in coordinated efforts to combat wildlife poaching, trafficking and demand.

Each GWP country will support the implementation of activities aligned with national priorities and policies to combat wildlife crime, including under their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs) submitted to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

In co-operation with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the World Bank, TRAFFIC, WWF, and other partners in the Global Wildlife Program, the project is increasing awareness of port stakeholders about wildlife crime and building capacity of law enforcement agencies and the private sector to jointly prevent, detect, and intercept illegal wildlife products.

A key component is the engagement of private sector companies along the maritime transport supply chain. This builds off the success of the United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce, spearheaded by the Duke of Cambridge.

The project is encouraging transport companies to join the currently 100+ signatories of the Buckingham Palace Declaration, and is providing them with technical support to assess supply chain security risks and strengthen defences against wildlife trafficking.

Building partnerships, the project is improving co-operation and collaboration between key port stakeholders. Because collective action is imperative to combat wildlife trafficking though seaports, these partnerships are critical.

“Wildlife trafficking is one such crime that can only be effectively fought through inter-agency collaboration. Collaboration becomes even more critical when considering the existing network of illegal wildlife dealers worldwide. It is only through collaboration in sharing of intelligence, exchange of operational techniques, sharing of modus operandi used by poachers and traffickers, etc. that we can truly build a united front against them,” says Robert Mande, Assistant Director of Anti-Poaching, Tanzania Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism

To date, the project and its partners have brought together over 130 representatives from 14 countries and over 50 organisations in Kenya and Tanzania to discuss concrete actions to stem the flow of illegal wildlife products through Mombasa and Dar es Salaam ports.

This includes government law enforcement agencies and port authorities, private sector port and maritime supply chain companies and associations, as well as conservation and trade facilitation non-governmental and intergovernmental organisations.

Recognising the urgent need for action against IWT, these key port stakeholders have agreed on a collective way forward. Specific actions include strengthening risk profiling systems, inter-agency, inter-sectoral, and international collaboration, enforcement and prosecution capacity, and information and intelligence exchange.

The project and its partners are committed to support port stakeholders in taking tangible steps towards these prioritised actions.

Complementary to these efforts targeting seaports, Kenya and Tanzania are implementing national projects under the GWP, led by national governments and supported by UNDP. These projects will support the implementation of the National Wildlife Strategy 2030 in Kenya, and the National Strategy to Combat Poaching and Illegal Wildlife Trade in Tanzania.

Strong national government leadership is imperative.

Recognising that IWT is a transnational crime, the project is also supporting measures to enhance regional co-operation in Africa as well as between key African and Asian ports. GWP national projects in Indonesia and the Philippines are key partners in this coordination through their efforts to strengthen capacities at Asian seaports.

This coordination is particularly important as criminal IWT networks are quick to adapt to stronger detection and enforcement capacities by varying transport routes. Recent ivory and pangolin scales seizure data suggests that trafficking routes have broadened to include Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria, among others.

Transnational information exchange and co-operation are needed to stay a step ahead of the criminal IWT networks.

These are exceptional times in which nature is sending us a message: human health is dependent on the health of the planet. Zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 are transmitted between animals and people; research shows that as we degrade the natural world, these diseases are more likely to spread. To prevent and control future pandemics, we need to take care of nature, so that nature can take care of us.

Biological diversity – including healthy wildlife populations – underpins ecosystem functioning, supports local livelihoods and economic development, and is essential to achieving the Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Poaching and illegal trade in wildlife, with its diverse impacts across environment, economy, and society, puts at risk the achievement of multiple SDGs. We also now understand in a much more personal way how it puts at risk the achievement of multiple SDGs – including those related to health.

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting global public health and the global economy in unprecedented ways. As the world recovers, and tries to build back better, we must maximise pressure on the new vulnerabilities that wildlife traffickers are facing and redouble our efforts to address poaching and trafficking of wildlife – for the benefit of environment, economy and society.

This project acknowledges the current reality, and contributes to advancing efforts on SDG 15 on life on land, and specifically target 15.7 Take urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products, with benefits for other SDGs, including SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth and SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions.
For more information on the Global Wildlife Program, please visit

Since 2000, UNDP’s global biodiversity program, with financing from the Global Environment Facility and other sources, has been successful in: helping to strengthen over 3,000 protected areas, covering more than 680 million hectares including marine, terrestrial and indigenous and community conserved areas; and undertaking interventions in production sectors and development planning, covering more than 250 million hectares of production landscapes and seascapes.