In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in wildlife crime, resulting in an extinction crisis that threatens treasured species around the world like elephants, rhinos, tigers, and more. One of the leading causes of this crisis is illegal trafficking – a multi-billion dollar global industry with a low rate of arrests and convictions. Wildlife trafficking threaten ecosystems, harm wildlife, and push species to the brink of extinction. Trafficking effects also ripple outward, jeopardizing sustainability efforts, economic stability and security, and public health.
Wildlife trafficking includes the illegal trade of fish, wildlife, and plants, encompassing the illegal timber trade, money laundering enterprises, global fraud, and more. Efforts to target and combat the illicit wildlife trade are hindered by the existence of sophisticated organized crime networks that are estimated to net an annual revenue of upwards of $23 billion per year. Because of its underground nature, wildlife crime is almost impossible to detect through law enforcement alone.
Tracking down offenders in the illicit wildlife trafficking trade has proven to be difficult due to its pervasiveness and underground nature. Protecting and incentivizing people to report illegal activity is then crucial in combatting this increasingly lucrative trade and the poaching that sustains it.
To aid in the reporting of wildlife crimes, the National Whistleblower Center (NWC) educates whistleblowers about their rights and protections under U.S. law in order to empower them to come forward with evidence of wildlife crime and combat this dangerous global trade. NWC has also led policy actions, advocacy pushes, investigations, and more to aid whistleblowers in reporting wildlife crime and strengthen existing whistleblower programs.
“Rewarding those with knowledge of illegal trafficking for coming forward with that evidence will make a real dent in the worldwide campaign to stop trading in precious wildlife species like rhinos and elephants.”
– John Kostyack, NWC Executive Director
Whistleblowers & the Illicit Global Wildlife Trade
Whistleblowers with original information can be valuable tools to identify and report wildlife crimes and violations to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. Many times, insiders in these illicit organizations or elsewhere have knowledge of the operations and can confidentially report evidence of illegal activity. If disclosures result in successful enforcement actions, under various U.S. laws, these whistleblowers can get rewarded.
Many federal anti-corruption laws rely on whistleblowers for information to make prosecutions. Whistleblower disclosures and corresponding reward programs have been both successful and lucrative; the federal False Claims Act, for example, has collected more than $42 billion from wrongdoers since 1986 for the benefit of taxpayers with nearly $6.5 billion being awarded to whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers seeking to disclose proprietary information regarding wildlife crime can turn to numerous U.S. laws to confidentially make disclosures. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division alongside U.S. Attorneys’ Offices work to prosecute international wildlife trafficking crimes, primarily under the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act. Clear federal support for whistleblowers exists, and these agencies and departments rely on whistleblowers in order to successfully prosecute wrongdoers engaged in wildlife trafficking.
Wildlife trafficking and crime can take many forms. Illegal activities that whistleblowers may report include:
- Buying or selling illegal wildlife products.
- Bribing foreign government officials.
- Importing or exporting illegal wildlife products.
- Providing false information on customs forms at U.S. ports.
- Shipping or transporting illegal wildlife products.
- Laundering money earned from trafficking.
- Offering or purchasing illegal hunting guide services.
- Participation of U.S. citizens or U.S. corporations.
“The United States views the poaching and trafficking of protected wildlife as a threat to good governance, a threat to the rule of law, and a challenge to our stewardship responsibilities for this good earth.”
– Then Attorney General of the DOJ Jeff Sessions, in a statement made on behalf of the United States at the London Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in 2018
Critical Legislation Needed: H.R.864
Legal and policy advocacy on behalf of endangered wildlife is a key tenet of the Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program. NWC strongly supports the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act, or H.R.864, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019 by Congressmen John Garamendi (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK).
If implemented, this groundbreaking piece of legislation would enhance the ability of informants, whistleblowers, and company insiders around the world to detect and report wildlife crimes including wildlife trafficking, IUU fishing, and the illegal timber trade, at no additional cost to taxpayers. In its scope, the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act aims to:
- Strengthen wildlife crime detection by mandating whistleblower rewards for citizens and NGOs worldwide who report information on wildlife crime which results in a successful prosecution.
- Enhance enforcement mechanisms by expanding transnational law enforcement to stop wildlife trafficking at the source. Wildlife trafficking would become an offense under federal racketeering and organized crime statutes.
- Increase wildlife conservation funding, as monies recovered by successful prosecution under said statutes and other wildlife protection laws would be put directly into conservation efforts.
NWC played a leading role in the campaign to inform non-profits and the public about this bill and garner their support. NWC has successfully obtained endorsements from many high profile anti-trafficking and wildlife conservation NGOs, including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Environmental Investigative Agency, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, and more.
HR.864 offers a powerful tool in the fight against wildlife trafficking – with whistleblowers at the center. And as an October 2020 poll from the Whistleblower News Network shows, corporate whistleblowers enjoy broad support from the American public. When asked if passing stronger laws that protect employees who report corporate fraud should be a priority for Congress, 82 percent of those surveyed agreed, with 29 percent stating that it should be an immediate priority.
This poll should provide Congress with all the encouragement it needs to act on pending whistleblower bills addressing private sector corruption, like H.R.864. If passed, this bill could prove a powerful tool for greater accountability in the fishing industry and have a powerful impact on curbing the illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing that threatens marine life around the globe.
To join NWC’s grassroots network in helping pass this critically needed bill, take action & support wildlife whistleblowers in the fight against the illicit wildlife trade.
“[Whistleblowers] account for a large part of the success of an effective wildlife law enforcement program and we should take the opportunities we can as an agency to reward these people.”
– Report filed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Agents
NWC has made strides in our Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program through advocacy and education regarding wildlife whistleblower laws and how whistleblowers can combat wildlife trafficking. With support from our grassroots network, whistleblowers and their advocates, NWC has been able to advocate for the passage of beneficial legislation, implement administrative fixes and teach about the role of whistleblowers in wildlife crime.
In December 2019, an NWC-supported bipartisan anti-wildlife trafficking bill, the Rescuing Animals with Rewards Act, or RAWR Act, passed after its inclusion into the final appropriations bill of Fiscal Year 2020. Originally introduced in May 2019, the RAWR Act authorizes the State Department to provide rewards to whistleblowers who bring forth information that aids in the successful prosecution of wildlife trafficking, adding wildlife whistleblowers into the State Department’s existing whistleblower program.
In order to spur public interest in the bill, NWC relied upon its extensive grassroots network through email campaigns and social media promotion to encourage supporters to draft letters to their respective representatives and senators, urging support for the bill. All of this work was supplemented by direct advocacy in the relevant Senate and House committees by NWC leadership, including a letter submitted in support of the RAWR Act.
Similar work is underway to encourage the passing of Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act, or H.R.864, as earlier mentioned. NWC supporters have rallied around the anti-trafficking cause by urging their Congressional representatives to support and pass H.R.864. Alongside NWC’s own advocacy, a coalition of endorsing organizations wrote to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Committee on Natural Resources to express their support for the bill. With their combined experience, this coalition urges that whistleblowers be empowered globally to combat wildlife crimes and law enforcement is given the proper resources to tackle it.
Regardless of any legislative fixes, if the agencies or administrative bodies tasked with the protection and oversight of whistleblowers are delinquent in their duties, it is critical that the National Whistleblower Center takes action. After being confidentially notified that recovered monies from Lacey Act, Endangered Species Act, and other wildlife law cases were diverted from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ (FWS) conservation funds, NWC launched an investigation into the FWS whistleblower program. These investigations uncovered that monies from wildlife cases arrived not in the legally required conservation fund, but into a general fund. To rectify this discrepancy, NWC advocated for the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to provide guidance to key officials, District Courts, their clerks and probation officers regarding the proper destination of recovered funds, to which the AOC agreed. Guidance was issued by the AOC, thus placing critical funds back into the proper channels to protect wildlife.
In line with this work, NWC conducted various inquiries via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to analyze the efficacy of the FWS’ whistleblower program. NWC found that the FWS generated a small number of rewards, despite vocal support for the program from FWS enforcement officials. Following NWC’s investigation, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that showed agencies like FWS neglected to use their whistleblower programs, vindicating NWC’s position. Shortly after, the FWS updated its Office of Law Enforcement page to better promote its whistleblower program and encourage further reports.