Fresh water turtlesA recent investigation into wildlife trafficking highlights the importance of improving whistleblower incentives in the wildlife crimes sphere. Through “Operation Dragon,” the Wildlife Justice Commission (“WJC”) investigated the ties between the trafficking of endangered and CITES-listed freshwater turtles and the corruption that facilitates that illicit trade. Over the course of two years, WJC used undercover investigators to document operations of eight major trafficking networks in South Asia and the corrupt customs and transportation officials that consistently enabled the trafficking. The investigation allowed law enforcement to significantly disrupt these networks, arresting 30 individuals and seizing over 6,000 freshwater turtles. Wholesale value for a batch of 6,000 averages $3 million.

In its report on Operation Dragon, WJC noted that “direct contact with traffickers allowed investigators to meaningfully quantify the scale of the illegal trade” and demonstrate the extent of corruption at the heart of the trafficking. Due to the secretive nature of wildlife crimes and the bribery used to facilitate these crimes, insiders – whistleblowers – are an important source of information and are crucial to combatting these issues. WJC used its undercover investigators to document how the traffickers operate and coordinate throughout the supply chain. Likewise, wildlife whistleblowers are indispensable in detecting wildlife crime and assist law enforcement successfully implement the law. Incentives such as rewards help motive these individuals, even those reporting on a dangerous criminal enterprise.

WJC has partnered with the National Whistleblower Center who’s Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program uses the power of whistleblowers reward laws, which have a proven record of success, to radically stimulate the number of whistleblowers who report wildlife crime.

Wildlife trafficking and its associated corruption violate several U.S. laws that have international reach and provide incentives for such whistleblowers to step forward:

  • Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) – prohibits publicly traded companies from bribing foreign officials in order to obtain or retain business, and mandates proper financial record-keeping. For example, if a publicly traded shipping company bribed an official at an Indian airport so that the company could load protected freshwater turtles onto the ship without the official interfering, this would violate the FCPA.
  • False Claims Act (“FCA”) – penalizes, among other things, individuals and organizations that commit customs fraud. This includes incorrectly labeled wildlife or wildlife products imported into the U.S.
  • Lacey Act – makes it unlawful for any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction to import, export, transport, sell, or purchase fish, wildlife, or plants in violation of any U.S. or foreign law, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”).

All three laws include whistleblower reward provisions, and may further provide confidentiality and anti-retaliation protections. Congress enacted these incentive laws to address the fear that most insiders have when reporting corruption. Whistleblowers need the protection and encouragement offered by these laws. Whistleblower incentive laws empower individuals within the criminal economy or a corrupt government to take a stand against the wider systemic forces they are subject to, holding the most powerful players accountable while protecting those that aid in exposure of the crime. Whistleblower reward laws are also proven to increase the amount and quality of whistleblower disclosures. By making reporting crime more lucrative than participating in it, trafficking networks such as those investigated by WJC will be disrupted and dismantled.

Whistleblower incentives are therefore instrumental in uncovering crime and corruption, especially when perpetuated by secretive, financially-driven organizations. Over time, this incentive model has become the most effective means to obtain critical information on any corrupt enterprise, and is an essential tool in detecting and preventing wildlife trafficking. Increased utilization of whistleblower incentives in the context of wildlife trafficking would thus have a profound impact on the future survival of endangered species like the freshwater turtle.