Source: Nancy Lewis / AWF

Terrorists, organized crime syndicates and private armed forces are profiting from environmental crimes around the world. These outlaws reap benefits from peddling in contraband, which endangers wildlife and undermines environmental regulations.

The Rise of Environmental Crime report, recently released by the UNEP and INTERPOL, found environmental crimes to be the fourth largest global illegal industry, racking up between $91 billion and $258 billion annually (drug trafficking, counterfeiting and human trafficking amassed an estimated $344 billion, $288 billion and $157 billion respectively).

Ivory for sale. (Photo Credit: Craig R. Sholley)

Ivory for sale. (Photo Credit: Craig R. Sholley)

What exactly is “environmental crime?” The report defines environmental crime as “illegal activities harming the environment and aimed at benefiting individuals or groups or companies from the exploitation of, damage to, trade or theft of natural resources, including, but not limited to serious crimes and transnational organized crime.” This means illegal forestry (about $51BN – $152BN per annum), wildlife ( about $7BN – $23BN per annum) and seafood ( about $11BN – $24BN per annum) trafficking; dumping toxic chemicals and waste products ( about $12BN – $24BN per annum); money laundering, carbon credit fraud, tax fraud, financial crimes and more. Due to the clandestine nature of these operations, precise statistics are difficult to obtain; however, the report estimates the industry has grown by roughly 26 percent since the last report in 2014.

Part of the problem driving the criminal trade is that environmental contraband poses less risk than other verboten goods, but with comparable profits. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, illegal environmental profiteering generates an estimated $1.25 billion each year, with a significant portion going to international organized crime networks. Environmental crime is also attractive to groups like ISIS, which currently deals largely in stolen oil and antiques, the report states. Supplies often come from developing countries that lack funding, law enforcement and judicial repercussions to properly stop illicit environmental exploitation.


Not all environmental crime is conducted by terrorists and rogue militants. Poor people struggling to feed their families are often faced with choosing between starvation and illegal environmental transactions. The report mentions that poachers in the Serengeti made an average of over three times the annual income of small business owners and farmers in the region. However, small-scale poverty stricken soldiers take home a mere fraction of the loot, most of which falls into the laps of organized criminal organizations.

You need a network to fight a network, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare is building just that. The organization is using proven military technology to track poaching networks and save elephants in Kenya.

Photo Credit: Nancy Lewis / AWF

Photo Credit: Nancy Lewis / AWF

In addition to increasing information and monitoring, the report suggests targeting demand (largely in Asia-Pacific) with information campaigns, providing alternative livelihoods for marginalized populations, increasing development aid for environmental watchdogs and strengthening government programs and international treaties to stop unlawful enterprises.

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