29. June 2020

The role of public-private partnerships in combating illegal wildlife trade

Reflection of buildings on wood. Photo by FOX from Pexels
Photo by FOX from Pexels

In this article, Juhani Grossmann, IWT Team Leader at the Basel Institute on Governance, explores the role of public-private partnerships in tackling illegal wildlife trade (IWT).

This is the second article in our short series of perspectives on IWT and financial crime, in collaboration with the International Academy of Financial Crime Litigators

White elephant or panacea? Public-private partnerships and their role in wildlife protection

Public-private partnerships (PPPs) have tremendous potential in areas where government might not have sufficient resources or know-how to implement an otherwise valuable project. Classic examples are large infrastructure undertakings, where government sees the need for its development, but is not able to commit the required funds.

The common risks associated with PPPs are that businesses aren’t able to recoup the funds invested and cut costs to the point where services provided are no longer sustainable. Too frequently, we find huge PPP infrastructure projects abandoned.

In the case of the illegal wildlife trade (IWT), some PPP challenges are not unique:

  • difficulties in adequately reflecting both the government and the private partners’ interests in contractual language, including predicting long-term trends accurately;
  • the ability to provide proper oversight over contracts once signed;
  • unforeseen consequences.

Can conservation be a business?

The most visible IWT-specific PPPs relate to the commercial utilisation of wildlife resources through tourism. This frequently includes wildlife park management on behalf of the government by private entities, both non- and for-profit. Their sustainability is a challenge even in good times, with the biggest entity, African Parks, relying for 86% of their needed resources on grant donations.

PPPs also frequently provide vital services beyond the protection of wildlife and habitats for human communities surrounding protected areas, including employment opportunities, loan programs, educational and health initiatives, veterinary services, and conflict prevention and mitigation.

As with all PPPs, there are pluses and minuses. On the negative side, less scrupulous for-profit operations struggle with their stated conservation objectives or even function as a cover for poaching. On the positive side, some for-profit consultancies are offering strategic advice to countries on how to manage their parks and maximise profits, while ensuring conservation goals are met.

No tourists, no protection?

In light of covid-19 and the almost complete stop of international tourist arrivals, the financial calculations underpinning the wildlife park management PPPs are crumbling. New revenue streams are actively being considered for both public and private park management. These include conservation bonds or the sale of commodities that might be co-located with protected wildlife, such as sand and non-protected plant species.

As these options are being considered, parks that are important from a conservation perspective, but had previously represented an insignificant contribution to tourism revenue streams, might become more financially viable. Unfortunately, the track record of extractive enterprises operating within and near protected areas or fragile landscapes has largely been unsatisfactory, including the facilitation and enabling of serious wildlife crime.

Any such utilisation will thus have to be preceded by the herculean tasks of:

  • a) strict and well-considered regulation
  • b) a strengthening of government and civil oversight, as well as
  • c) bolstering of internal and external anti-corruption defences.

Covid-19 supercharges reputational risk

An additional area where cooperation between the private and the public sector has proven exceptionally fruitful is United for Wildlife, a coalition of transport and financial firms who are determined to prevent traffickers from accessing their networks, without which they are unable to ply their trade. The members work actively with government (especially law enforcement agencies) to report wrongdoings.

We at the Basel Institute on Governance have been fortunate to be actively engaged in the process through operating the information-sharing system and see first hand the positive impact that such cooperation can have.

While the partnerships are not overtly commercial in nature, members are certainly conscious of the legal and financial risk of IWT. The recent association of IWT with zoonotic diseases and thus covid-19 has caused the reputational risks for companies found to be facilitating the illegal wildlife trade to skyrocket.

Change is already happening

Even before covid-19, transport firms have been excellent at collaborating through United for Wildlife with local law enforcement agencies to provide valuable information on illegal goods that pass through their logistical networks. Heathrow Airport, itself a PPP through operator BAA Limited, has been utilising data parsed from government seizures to develop an AI-driven baggage screening system for illicit wildlife products.

Financial institutions, on the other hand, are increasingly sensitised towards transactions related to IWT and developing sophisticated models to identify and report those to financial intelligence units and other regulatory bodies. The dismantling of the notorious Kromah trafficking network in East Africa was strongly supported by collaboration between law enforcement and financial institutions.

Thankfully, this collaboration has not suffered as a result of pandemic-related travel and meeting restrictions. Rather, the partners have quickly embraced the opportunities that technology provides and continue to collaborate actively to disrupt and dismantle criminal networks putting wildlife- and human- communities at risk.

To view the alternative perspective on this topic by Bruce Zagaris, Partner at Berliner Corcoran & Rowe, and Fellow of the International Academy of Financial Crime Litigators, see The Academy's website or download the PDF

Juhani Grossmann

Head, Green Corruption / Senior Advisor for Central and Eastern Europe
+41 61 205 55 30