Wildlife trafficking has been a long-standing issue for Bangladesh. Yet it is a crime no one is talking about. The crimes range from Bangladeshi pirates killing tigers in exchange for arms, to human trafficking gangs using wildlife products as currency to bribe foreign officials.

There are some good practices. For example, wildlife crime is often featured in news and social media feeds. Numerous aid projects conduct awareness campaigns alongside governmental agencies in charge of conservation efforts. Bangladesh has signed pledges and agreements within the international community to tackle illegal trade and ensure conservation efforts. Despite these actions, there is no policy or ground-level focus to tackle the growing menace of wildlife trafficking.

Weak legislation, lack of resources and naivety towards wildlife crime are the overarching reasons for wildlife crime proliferation. They lead to organised crime gangs, which maximise illicit profits and leverage local communities, with little risk to themselves.

Wildlife trafficking is a problem stretching beyond Bangladesh. The expansion of wildlife trafficking as an illicit trade touches every country around the globe. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it is the fourth-largest illicit trade. As of 2022, wildlife trade is estimated to represent USD 23 billion a year. It is ranked only just behind arms, drugs and human trafficking. With such standing, it is explicit that wildlife crime is closely linked with these other types of crime.

The sad truth is that the actual trade may be higher than the estimates provided by the UN. Such estimates are based on existing ‘seizure data,’ collected for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal indicators. Here, the reliance on seizure data creates a paradox whereby a low reporting value does not necessarily mean less wildlife crime. It can simply mean that tackling or tracking the crime has not been a priority. Equally, a high reporting value can indicate a focused effort to tackle the issue but it may not reflect the scale of the crime. Therefore, this trade’s true scale could be considerably larger.

Why should Bangladesh care?

In an age of emerging growth, addressing wildlife crime may not get priority. However, wildlife crime is part of the ‘crime nexus’ that inhibits the growth of a country and disrupts its social cohesion. As far back as 2007, reports exist of Islamic militants in Bangladesh selling wildlife products as a funding source for their activities. In 2019, arrests were made at the capital Dhaka’s airport for smuggling in turtles, along with gold. In 2022, a Bangladeshi was arrested for arms trafficking offences. Interestingly, the same person also smuggled endangered wildlife species. The evidence on how wildlife crime is intrinsically linked to other ‘big’ crime types is ever-more telling.

…wildlife crime is part of the ‘crime nexus’ that inhibits the growth of a country and disrupts its social cohesion.

From an ecological perspective, in the past 50 years, globally, the species population has declined by 60%. The extinction of key species creates a precarious situation for the environment. For instance, if tigers become extinct from their habitat in the Sundarbans mangrove jungle at the southwestern edge of Bangladesh, there will be no natural predator. This could lead to ecosystem collapse. In a census in 2018, the last official figure for tigers in Bangladesh was 114. A real experience of near ecosystem collapse was in North America, when the North American Grey Wolf was on the brink of extinction in Yellowstone National Park, USA. Without the wolf, elk populations grew exponentially, which had a catastrophic effect on flora. This drove some species to near extinction.

An indigenous Royal Bengal Tiger commands the waters with elegance, the Sundarbans mangrove forest, Bangladesh, 15 February 2022 |Photo by Aal Maruf Russell.

The importance of ecological balance was emphasised by Bangladesh’s founding administration, led by the founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (popularly known as Bangabandhu). On 16 July 1972, Mujib, then prime minister of the country, in his speech during ‘Bangabandhu Tree Planting Week,’ said:

‘We did not create the Sundarbans by planting trees. It is a gift of nature to save Bangladesh. The Sundarbans along the Bay of Bengal is a wall. If it is not protected then one day, other southern areas of Khulna, Barishal, Patuakhali, parts of Cumilla, and parts of Dhaka will go into the sea. And these will become small islands like Hatia and Sandwip. Once the Sundarbans is over, there is no way to protect the country from the erosion the sea will cause.’

Risk-to-reward ratio

Why are criminals adding wildlife to their illicit operations? The answer is simple: the risk-to-reward ratio in wildlife crime is like in no other crime. The chances of detention are much lower than for those other organised crimes.

Bangladesh’s main legislation governing wildlife-oriented offences is the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act 2012. Under this law, the only cognisable, and non-bailable, offence is one for killing, possessing or selling a tiger or an elephant. Offences for all other species does not carry a power of arrest and are bailable. The strongest sentence for the possession of tiger or elephant parts is a maximum of three years imprisonment or a fine of BDT 300,000 (equivalent to USD 3,000). Compare this to the current value of a tiger. When broken down into all its individual parts, a tiger is valued at USD 72,310.

Let’s compare the financial worth of a tiger to the equivalent value of illegal narcotics. Now, let’s take comparative sentencing under the law. In this way, the incentive to do wildlife crime will be crystal clear. In Bangladesh, trading of the highest-ranked ‘class A’ drug can result in either life imprisonment or capital punishment.[1] The possession of USD 72,310 worth (the same as a tiger’s cost) of ‘class A’ drugs would result in a sentence of death or life imprisonment.

In Bangladesh, the only law enforcement unit to tackle wildlife trafficking is the Wildlife Crime Control Unit, created in 2012. As of 2023, this unit has only six people, taken from Bangladesh’s forest management agency, the Forest Department. Despite being mandated within the law to deal with wildlife crime, the unit is yet to become accepted as a ‘revenue department,’ meaning it does not have earmarked funding from the government’s budget. It rather relies on aid-centric ‘development’ project funds from the government and development partners.

The limited institutional capacity and lack of professional law enforcers show that Bangladesh has not prioritised tackling wildlife crime. The Wildlife Crime Control Unit, as an institution, is not equipped to investigate crimes at a national scale.

Bangladesh can look elsewhere for lessons. The disparity between the country and other countries in South and Southeast Asia in sentencing for wildlife crimes is noteworthy. Such disparities mean criminal networks can take multiple advantages. They will continue to use both wildlife and Bangladesh as a funding stream. This will also be a way for them to sidestep the authorities. Vietnam, for example, recognising the seriousness of wildlife crime, updated its Penal Code in 2018. It sentences criminals to up to 15 years of imprisonment and up to USD 660,000 in fines.

Bangladesh, a transnational access point

Bangladesh is home to many endangered species, including iconic tigers, elephants and pangolins. Each species has economic worth, which makes Bangladesh a source for international trafficking efforts. Weak laws and enforcement also mean that Bangladesh is seen as a smuggling access point for the wider region. In other words, it is a hub for smuggling wildlife items from other parts of the world.

There are reports of turtles and tortoises from Sri Lanka and India being trafficked across land borders to allow for onward dispersal through Dhaka airport. Tigers are trafficked from the tiger farm trade in Thailand and South Africa into Bangladesh. This, in turn, perpetuates the supply of the illegal trade globally. There have also been seizures in Bangladesh of large African mammals destined for India, including lions and zebras.

A big problem is that smugglers are intentionally mixing illegal trade with legal trade in species. They can manipulate the legal trade in wildlife and thereby facilitate the illegal trade. Let’s understand this. Bangladesh joined the main wildlife protection treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), in 1981. CITES ensures that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species. Under this convention, wildlife trading can be regulated with permits to enable trade between countries for some species. It also prevents the trade of endangered species.

For Bangladesh, the country’s main wildlife management agency, the Forest Department, is responsible for giving permissions and enforcing the relevant regulations. It is the Forest Department that can verify if imported items are legal or illegal. But it does not have access to ports of entry and exit.

Other law enforcement and regulatory agencies do not have the mandate or expertise to identify the wildlife species in transit. Therefore, without no expertise present to physically identify a species, forged or fraudulent ‘supporting’ documents can be used to illegally transfer protected species.

An endemic problem

Bangladesh has signed and ratified 14 international treaties on conservation efforts. This would usually indicate that considerable protection is in place. But in reality, there is a disconnect between these treaties and their on-the-ground implementation. In other words, treaties at the top have not transpired into ground-level action in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s crime-tackling institutional apparatus – consisting of enforcement agencies, prosecutors and judiciary – is not well aware of the wildlife crime racket. This is reflected in the sentencing, or lack thereof, for wildlife offences. Wildlife crime is not measured as a performance indicator within these agencies. There is no awareness-training on the issue, therefore nobody talks about it.

The training syllabus for law enforcement agencies, members of the judiciary and prosecutors does not mention wildlife crime. Therefore, why would it be a topic of concern? Even within the core syllabus for new recruits into Bangladesh’s Forest Department, the agency responsible for managing wildlife crime, it is non-existent. Furthermore, academia within Bangladesh does not train its students on wildlife crime. In studying topics ranging from zoology to criminology, wildlife is a non-issue. Hence, very few people are aware of the impact wildlife crime is having on Bangladesh.

Policy suggestions

There are some basic steps that Bangladeshi policymakers can take to counter wildlife trafficking. Here are four suggestions:

  1. Incorporate ‘counter-wildlife trafficking’ into the syllabus for law enforcement agencies, legal professionals and relevant university programmes (like criminology and zoology). This will prepare key workers and policymakers to tackle wildlife crime.
  2. Review the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act of 2012. This review should factor in the strong link between wildlife crimes and other crimes. This will help prevent the use of wildlife trafficking as a way of evading prosecution.
  3. The Wildlife Crime Control Unit, the country’s main wildlife crime fighting agency, should become a ‘revenue department,’ meaning it should be regularly funded from the government budget. The unit should be more integrated with other law enforcement agencies. Only then will it be empowered to use a wide set of powers and act independently (without being dependent on foreign aid).
  4. Bangladesh’s Forest Department should have access to ports of entry and exit. This will enable the proper examination of wildlife products entering and exiting the country. The department can help ensure that products have proper CITES paperwork (as per the international treaty obligation) and can also identify any false paperwork.

Bangladesh’s Forest Department should have access to ports of entry and exit.

Wildlife care is a ‘founding agenda’

In early 1972, just after Bangladesh’s independence, the then premier Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman met with high-ranking officials from the Forest Department to inquire about the state of the forests, which at the time were ravaged by war. Mujib promised the Forest Department that his administration would take conservation action as soon as possible.

In the book Saving the Tiger, published in 1981, the author details Mujib’s keen interest in conservation. In the 1970s, in the era of Cold War high politics, world leaders had barely any interest in wildlife. Mujib understood the seriousness of the issue, and had the foresight to pass time-befitting wildlife preservation law as early as 1973.  During his tenure, in 1973, a presidential degree, the Wildlife (Preservation) Order under President’s Order, was issued. This was amended/enacted into a full-fledged law, the Wildlife (Preservation) Act, in 1974. Fast-forward nearly 40 years, the law was again amended as the Wildlife (Conservation and Security) Act in 2012. Between these years, Bangladesh signed many treaty commitments on wildlife.

What could never have been anticipated in those early days of Bangladesh’s history is how valuable wildlife and wildlife products would become. Today, wildlife’s value goes beyond maintaining an ecological balance. Wildlife has an ever-increasing economic value, driving illicit modern-day trade, with a low risk of prosecution under law.

Without Mujib’s foresight, the situation would be a great deal worse. But today’s disconnect between treaty commitments and actual actions on wildlife trafficking issues needs real attention. The problem must be addressed first by educating law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and members of academia. Otherwise, a perpetual state of flux will exist, whereby, despite conservation efforts, there is no real-world change.

 

[1] Bangladesh’s Narcotics Control Act 1990 is the prime law dealing with drugs-related crimes.

 

Cover: A monkey in captivity, Satkhira, southwestern Bangladesh, 2022 | Photo by Craig Fullstone.

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

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Craig Fullstone is Senior Law Enforcement Advisor with the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). He is a conservationist. He is Chief of Party for the USAID-supported Wildlife Protection Activity. He specialises in counter-wildlife trafficking and counter-terrorism.
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Samia Saif is Programme Lead at the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). She is a conservationist. She specialises in tiger poaching and tiger trade. She has received the Future for Nature Award. She pursued her doctoral studies in biodiversity management at the University of Kent, England.
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Nasir Uddin is a programme coordinator for the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). He is a conservationist and counter-wildlife crime professional. He was an analyst and team leader at USAID-supported Bagh Project and a facilitator at SMART Patrolling in Bangladesh Sundarbans. He pursued his doctoral studies in Wildlife Trafficking at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, China.