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Tanzanian ElephantOn Tuesday, the United Nations announced that environmental crimes are amassing between $70 billion and $213 billion per year. Such crimes operate parallel to a wide range of legitimate industries – including logging, fishing, mining and dumping – as well as purely illegal ones, such as trading in protected wildlife and plants. 

In some instances, such as within China and other Asian countries, the demand for rhino horn or animal parts is a cultural one that is difficult to stop. But such demand often leads criminal organizations and terrorist groups to use poaching as a means to fundraise their armies.

As Achim Steiner, the head of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), told Reuters, “Many criminal networks are making phenomenal profits from environmental crime. It is a financing machine.”

The UNEP’s report, Environmental Crime Crisis, states that “the illegal trade in natural resources is depriving economies of billions of dollars in lost revenues.”

“There has been a substantial upgrade in the scale from past reports,” says Christian Nellemann, head of the Rapid Response Unit at the United Nations Environment Assembly. “One of the primary reasons, particularly with regard to timber and loss of wildlife habitats, is that the methods used by organized crime were not so well known just a few years ago.”

Illegal timber trading makes between $30 billion and $100 billion annually and may represent as much as 30 percent of global timber trade. Charcoal, a valuable resource in Africa, is subjected to taxation by Somalia’s Islamist al Shabaab insurgents. An estimated $1.9 billion is made from this illicit trading. Ivory harvested from elephants is an annual $188 million business and has resulted in 20,000 elephants killed every year (even more disturbing when considering the total elephant population in Africa is 650,000).

The report goes on to give recommendations for protecting these industries and animals, but Nellemann says the biggest improvement will come from providing more front line protection to “stop criminal networks from increasing.”

Among the UNEP’s recommendations: Strengthen environmental legislation; implement consumer awareness campaigns; and coordinate international environmental regulations, including sharing of information.

You can read the full UNEP report here.

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