Follow the Money: Using Financial Investigation to Combat Wildlife Crime

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This paper explores the financial dimensions of wildlife crime, and the need to disrupt the financial networks of those engaged in this crime.

All over the world, for every animal or plant specimen taken illegally from the wild, money changes hands. It does so behind domestic pet storefronts, via online marketplaces, in ports, at ranger stations and often under the eyes of corrupt officials. Wildlife crime is not simply a crime against wildlife: it is organised financial crime conducted on an industrial and transnational scale for profit.

As global efforts to address the wildlife crime crisis have expanded, the financial dimensions of this destructive crime have been overlooked. Instead, responses have typically comprised targeted anti-poaching and anti-trafficking measures, the promotion of sustainable livelihoods, and initiatives to reduce demand for wildlife products. These measures are crucial and have at times yielded positive outcomes in particular locations. Yet until the responses deployed include a significant financial crime-related element to undermine perpetrators’ profit-seeking motivation, this low-risk, high-reward crime will continue to thrive largely unimpeded.

For other crime types, financial investigation is viewed as central to identifying not only the individual criminal but also their network of facilitators. Yet where wildlife crime is concerned, financial investigation is not employed on anything approaching a systematic basis. This paper argues that there is an urgent need for those charged with disrupting wildlife crime to add a financial dimension to their approach. The paper refers primarily – but not exclusively – to East Africa, and is the final output of a year-long project researching wildlife-linked illicit financial flows in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

In East Africa and across the supply chain, this paper advocates for greater use of financial tools to disrupt the accomplices, facilitators and support networks of those engaged in this crime. The paper makes the following recommendations to reach this objective, focusing specifically on the changes required to respond to the financial motives of those involved.


  • Recognise wildlife crime as a predicate offence to money laundering. Domestic financial crime laws should specifically include wildlife crime as a predicate offence to money laundering. Where this is not the case, as in many countries affected by wildlife crime, legislative reform should be initiated. 
  • Build capacity to use financial tools. Concerted efforts must be made to ensure that those charged with tackling wildlife crime across source, transit and destination countries have the necessary skills to conduct financial investigations. Investigators and prosecutors must be empowered with the techniques to source financial information to ensure that the prosecutorial net includes not just the suspect at hand, but also facilitators and beneficiaries. 
  • Conduct parallel financial investigations as a matter of routine. Follow-on investigations must be carried out after all major seizures. In line with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Recommendation 30, these must include parallel financial investigations. This would assist law enforcement agencies by providing additional evidence to identify the broader criminal network and locate the proceeds of crime. The financing of bail payments and the ease with which those convicted can pay fines to avoid custodial sentences should also be the subject of financial investigation. 
  • Freeze, seize and confiscate assets. Wherever possible, freezing, seizure and confiscation measures should be used to strip perpetrators of the proceeds of wildlife crime. This can offer a more powerful deterrent than custodial sentences, remove potential financing of future criminality, and allow the reinvestment of seized assets into measures to disrupt the predicate crime. 
  • Prosecute under alternative legislation. In many jurisdictions, there are options to arrest, detain and prosecute illegal operators under laws other than those relating directly to wildlife. Prosecution under economic crimes legislation may increase the prospects of substantial penalties being imposed where associated crime types – from money laundering to corruption – carry weightier custodial sentences. 
  • Ensure effective inter-agency cooperation. ‘Following the money’ requires collaboration between wildlife agencies, police, financial intelligence units (FIUs), asset recovery agencies and prosecution services, among others. Inter-agency cooperation could be pursued through joint investigation teams involving FIUs; meanwhile, wildlife agencies could share poacher watchlists with FIUs to allow their financial activity to be monitored. Where Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) between environmental agencies, law enforcement agencies and FIUs do not exist, they should be established as a matter of priority. 
  • Ensure public–private sector cooperation. Financial institutions are legally required to be alert to the risk of facilitating illicit financial flows and report suspicions to their national FIU. Governments should ensure that feedback is provided to these institutions, such that they can ‘fine tune’ their transaction monitoring and suspicious activity reporting. Partnership forums that allow for information exchange should be encouraged: collaborating in this manner can enhance the ability of law enforcement to disrupt wildlife crime, while enhancing banks’ knowledge of the risks they face. Partnerships involving mobile phone companies can offer similar benefits. 
  • Ensure an effective role for NGOs. NGOs must ensure that assistance provided to law enforcement agencies supports the gathering of financial information to assist in disruption. NGOs engaged in courtroom monitoring should record and analyse trends in the use of financial evidence in wildlife crime cases. At a policy level, NGOs can also strengthen pressure on governments to initiate legislative change around wildlife crime as a predicate offence, emphasising the importance of financial system integrity to continued national access to the international financial system. 
  • Develop red flags and typologies. All entities involved in combating wildlife crime should work together to develop red flags and typologies that can direct the use of public and private sector resources. This will involve sharing typological information and identified risk factors, between and within the public and private sectors, informed where appropriate by NGOs. This must be done while maintaining the flexibility to update red flags and typologies in line with evolving trends. 
  • Address corruption as a key facilitator. Anti-corruption units must adopt financial investigation tools as part of their efforts to identify the corrupt individuals facilitating wildlife crime. The potential benefits of this line of investigation may extend beyond wildlife crime where strategically placed corrupt individuals facilitate multiple crime types. 
  • Ensure that wildlife crime is reflected in National Risk Assessments (NRAs). In anticipation of FATF Mutual Evaluations, countries affected by wildlife crime must explicitly address the money-laundering risks posed by this crime in their NRAs. Members of FATF and relevant FATF-style regional bodies must support states to ensure that wildlife crime is appropriately reflected in assessments. 
  • Share information transnationally. The sharing of information – including financial information – between enforcement actors at a transnational level must be bolstered, both formally and informally. International law enforcement liaison relationships between key source and demand countries should be established; MoUs and mutual legal assistance treaties must be signed and used. Regular wildlife crime-focused law enforcement gatherings involving source, transit and demand countries should be sponsored. 
  • Establish an active financial sector taskforce. A financial sector group mirroring the United for Wildlife Transport Taskforce should be established prior to the 2018 Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference, to be hosted by the UK government. This will allow financial institutions to elaborate the role they can play in disrupting wildlife-linked illicit money flows. Bolstering this, the 2018 conference should dedicate meaningful time to the use of financial tools to disrupt wildlife crime.

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Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

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Tom Keatinge

Director, CFS

Centre for Finance and Security

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