If poachers and wildlife trafficking networks operate like international criminal syndicates, why not treat them that way? That’s one approach outlined in a bill reintroduced in Congress today designed to bolster efforts to use whistleblower rewards to stop wildlife crime. 

The bill aims to address problems with existing wildlife whistleblower programs that were identified in May by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It expands on existing whistleblower provisions and calls for new rules and the authority to enforce them.

The Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act was reintroduced by Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska – who calls himself an avid sportsman — and California Democrat John Garamendi, who describes himself a conservationist and outdoorsman.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) each currently have the option to reward whistleblowers who expose poaching, trafficking and other wildlife crimes. But, the 2018 GAO audit found that agencies’ programs are underused and inefficiently implemented.

The Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act would give more muscle to existing programs. The bill also would require that penalties and fines from prosecutions be redistributed to wildlife conservation efforts.

The bill calls for the addition of wildlife trafficking to the list of crimes like money laundering that qualify for prosecution under RICO, the federal racketeering and anti-organized crime statutes. RICO laws allow the indictment of individuals acting on behalf of an organization.

The National Whistleblower Center is home to a growing wildlife whistleblower program. In a written statement, NWC Executive Director Stephen M. Kohn writes that the bill “puts powerful and effective tools into the law enforcement arsenal necessary to detect and prosecute these criminals.”

NOAA logoFor example, the billwould allow law enforcement to go after high-level kingpins, corrupt officials, poachers, and other individuals that makeup wildlife trafficking enterprises. While it is true that some of these groups are fairly dispersed and disorganized, RICO was specifically written to go after organizations that are more loosely connected than a legal business enterprise,” according to the NWC website.

Many of the problems identified in GAO report are addressed by the bill. For example, the agencies have laws on the books to reward insiders who come forward with information. The GAO found those programs were not promoted and paid few rewards. For the period from 2007 through 2017, the two agencies could only find records for 27 rewards, totaling $205,500. Yet that is because the agencies do not have accurate and adequate record-keeping; later efforts by the National Whistleblower Center discovered other reward cases, although still not nearly enough.

Not that the agencies haven’t been going after wildlife criminals. The FWS Office of Law Enforcement told the GAO it opened more than 7,000 investigations into wildlife crime in 2016, including nearly 5,000 cases involving Endangered Species Act violations. An ongoing rhino horn and elephant ivory-trafficking investigation led more than 30 convictions and $2 million in fines since 2011.  In fiscal year 2016, a NOAA investigation “led to the conviction of a company and five individuals for illegally trafficking whale bone carvings, walrus ivory carvings, black coral carvings, and other products derived from protected species,” according to the GAO.

The Natural Resources Defense Council offers “five reasons to support the bill.”

  1.  Eases prosecution of wildlife traffickers and increases penalties
  2. Strengthens enforcement of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (“IUU”) fishing
  3.  Rewards whistleblowers who provide intelligence on global wildlife trafficking rings 
  4.  Provides funding for wildlife conservation programs– 
  5. Authorizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to station law enforcement officials and agency personnel in wildlife trafficking hot spots, as embeds in American embassies and consulates