Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program

A guest post and photos by Katarzyna Nowak. Nowak, a fellow at The Safina Center in New York, describes herself as a “wildlife conservation practitioner aspiring to bridge the science-policy-society interface.”

The zone north of 60 degrees latitude receives relatively little attention in the realm of wildlife crime. Vast areas of Alaska and the Yukon and their borderlands are stewarded by few people. For scale, Alaska is larger than Texas, Montana, and California combined and more than 3.5 times larger than the Yukon. A diversity of large, migratory mammals such as caribou, elk, moose, and Pacific walrus inhabit the region. Some are regarded as cultural keystone species that underpin the livelihoods of northerly indigenous people, yet their “value” gets contested and trivialized in the courts. Hunting pressure is high including at remote, fly-in only outposts.

CAPTION: A cutline through boreal forest demarcates the world’s longest undefended north-south international boundary, between the Yukon, Canada and Alaska, United States. Photo Credit: Katarzyna Nowak
Undefended north-south international boundary, between the Yukon, Canada and Alaska.

While whistleblowers have helped expose wildlife criminals by, for example, sending anonymous letters to Alaska Wildlife Troopers about illegal hunting activities, these instances have been few, raising the question: If an animal is poached in the far north, will someone be around to witness it? A variety of domestic and international routes lead into and out of the region by ground, air, and water, and traffic is increasing on northern shipping lanes.

In June 2018, while on fieldwork in the Yukon, I was sent a news article, “Black market animal smuggling is booming in Canada”. The Director General of Wildlife Enforcement for Environment Canada, Sheldon Jordan, described how his department, anticipating an unusually busy year of animal smuggling, had shifted more resources to the seizures team. According to Jordan, live animals are smuggled into Canada for the pet trade, and dead animals and their parts for décor, food, and traditional medicine, with a spike during summer months. He described a remote border crossing between Alaska and the Yukon—called Alcan-Beaver Creek—as having the second highest number of illegal incidents after metropolitan Vancouver. Is this because Customs and Border Protection are able to check a majority of vehicles or because smugglers see it as a convenient cross-border backdoor?

Wolverine fur
Seized wildlife items at the Beaver Creek border check point in the Yukon, Canada.

Upon visiting, I realized this crossing is unlike the northernmost one known as Top of the World, where U.S. and Canadian border authorities occupy the same site. At Alcan-Beaver Creek, the two border stations are separated by more than 20 miles. The in-between zone (under the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at least until the cutline that demarcates the international border half a mile from the U.S. Alcan station) struck me as a loophole: You could leave Alaska, stash items in Canada, clear customs at Beaver Creek, and return later (short of the U.S. border) to pick up your illicit goods. You could then re-enter explaining you hadn’t left Canada—and get waved through. I know it’s possible, because I did it (minus the stashing of any items). Additionally, people living in Beaver Creek enter this in-between zone to go to a dumpsite.

Often the more serious offenses, beyond paperwork violations and unlawful transport, happen farther afield away from official border posts. Detection may depend on whistle-blowing, saying something if seeing something suspicious including on social media or hunt chat forums. Charges have been brought against hunters and outfitters in this way.
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Those lucky enough to get a summer vacation at the beach or in the mountains should know that whistleblowers play a role in protecting the beautiful places we visit. A cruise ship engineer reported illegal dumping. A federal environmental analyst revealed that he was told to reverse his findings to favor a developer. Environmental activists

Corrupt government officials and informants who fear retribution. These are some of the challenges faced by citizens who become involved in helping enforce illegal logging regulations.

Three panelists discussed these and other forestry crime issues at March 21 webinar on “Citizen enforcement in the forestry sector”– Melissa Blue Sky, of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL); Ruth Noguerón, of the World Resources Institute and  Shelley Gardner, Illegal Logging Program Coordinator, USDA Forest Service. Each touched on the issue.

Interpol estimates that illegal timber comprises 15-30% of the global timber trade. That amounts to between $51 and $152 billion worth of wood every year.

A study of illegal timber harvesting in Peru found that exporters are adept at finding new ways to evade export controls, Blue Sky said.

For example, harvesting modalities not always subject oversight in Peru. Timber is “red flagged” as illegal but exported anyway– often to countries without timber regulations. In some cases, documentation about the source of the timber is manipulated.

“In many cases, it involves that active participation of government officials and until they are held accountable for that, you don’t get at the root of the problem,” Blue Sky said.


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The United Nations has named March 3, Sunday, as World Wildlife Day.This year’s theme is “Life below water,” and events took pace Friday at the United Nations in New York and around the globe.

They include shoreline trash collection in British Columbia, a photo contest on the shores of  Lake Victoria in Uganda and a youth art competition. Siem Reap, Cambodia will host a “day of exciting wildlife awareness activities and game for kids.” With the aquatic theme, the event’s film festival offers movies on whales, overfishing, penguins and pollution. Find trailers for many on the event’s video channel.

National Whistleblower Center and the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE) offered a webinar Tuesday on using whistleblowers address wildlife crimes like poaching, overfishing, habitat destruction and trafficking. The center’s Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program partners with conservation and anti-trafficking groups to expand and strengthen wildlife whistleblower programs. They see whistleblower rewards as a powerful but underused tool that could bolster the enforcement of wildlife protection laws.


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From Terra Verde, a weekly public radio program on environmental news.

KPFA logoHas the US government been failing to take advantage of an existing wildlife crime whistleblower program to fight against wildlife crime? Terra Verde host and Earth Island Journal editor Maureen Nandini Mitra explores this subject, as well a new wildlife crime whistleblower bill that’s making its way through Congress right now, with environmental journalist Richard Schiffman, and Stephen Kohn, a Washington, DC-based attorney and the executive director of the National Whistleblower Center.


In The Earth Island Journal story, Schiffman describes Kohn’s argument that “the best way to fight wildlife crime is to tap informants within trafficking groups — the poachers or the middlemen who transport illegal wildlife parts to a final destination — to help bust crime rings preying on endangered species. Enlisting whistleblowers in the Gulf and across totoaba smuggling routes, he believes, could have helped law enforcement break up what he calls the “totoaba cartel.
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On January 30, 2019, Reps. Don Young (R-AK) and John Garamendi (D-CA) introduced the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act of 2019 (H.R. 864). This bipartisan, groundbreaking legislation enhances the ability of informants worldwide to detect and report wildlife crimes. It also strengthens the laws criminalizing trafficking.

In a joint press release, both representatives recognized the importance of halting poachers, traffickers, and transnational criminal organizations—all of which are responsible for exacerbating the global extinction crisis. Furthermore, as Congressman Garamendi points out, “Our bipartisan bill advances American leadership in tackling the global wildlife trafficking and poaching crisis at no cost to the American taxpayer.”
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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 fine from prosecutions be redistributed to wildlife conservation efforts.


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Laws on the books designed to protect wildlife whistleblowers have been underutilized, according to a spring report from the Government Accounting Office. Now, two groups devoted to wildlife protection have joined with the National Whistleblower Center to help ensure that U.S. agencies use the tools they have to protect animals and fisheries and prevent trafficking.

Thinking Animals United is an advocacy group that works “to galvanize worldwide support for the care, protection, and conservation of animals and other species.” It has signed an agreement with the NWC to “develop joint endeavors, and exchange information with regards to addressing the relationship between environmental crime, economic growth, and national security,” according to a statement from the two groups.
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corruption TimberProtecting and incentivizing whistleblowers is essential to combat environmental crimes

The world is facing daunting environmental challenges, many exacerbated by corruption. A number of the planet’s protected species are disappearing rapidly, due in part to the illegal trade in flora and fauna, and corruption comes into play as traffickers often rely on fraudulent paperwork to move parts from endangered species and illegal timber across borders.
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Fresh water turtlesA recent investigation of 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.
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