To fight wildlife crime, experts say ‘follow the money’

In most cases, the conviction of a Thai man trafficking rhino horns through a bizarre scheme that involved hiring prostitutes to pose as trophy hunters would have marked the end of the story.

But investigators took an unusual, next step — deciding to “follow the money” that helped bankroll the South African operation, and ultimately winning a court order last year to seize Chumlong Lemtongthai’s Thai bank accounts and other assets, including a house worth $142,000, to shut him down.

It was one of an increasing number of cases illustrating how nations are shifting tactics in fighting a global wildlife trafficking market worth up to $23 billion, with the headline-grabbing police raids having little overall effect in halting illicit trades.

The idea is “to pick the pocket of the wildlife traffickers and try to freeze them in their tracks,” said Steve Galster, founder of the anti-trafficking Freeland Foundation.

This week, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution urging its 193 members to adopt laws making wildlife crimes offences that can trigger money laundering investigations and allow assets to be seized. Existing legal tools for fighting corruption, racketeering and financial crime should also be used to combat traffickers, it said.

Crime gangs are increasingly turning to wildlife smuggling as a lucrative trade. And as they become more sophisticated with their technology and financial arrangements, national customs agents and police have struggled to keep up.

Experts say they need to begin adopting tools commonly used to fight drug lords and other crime kingpins: anti-money laundering techniques and financial investigation.

“We’ve gone beyond kicking down the door and looking for animals in the back room, to looking at who’s the kingpin, who’s the transportation coordinator, who ultimately is the vulnerable node in the syndicate without whom the syndicate wouldn’t work,” said Galster, whose group has teamed up with law enforcement agencies to bring down several trafficking rings in recent years.

A new report this week calls this expanded effort “urgent,” given how quickly crime gangs are evolving into cross-border wildlife trades.

Agencies fighting wildlife crime need to conduct financial investigations after every bust — to identify broader criminal networks and uncover criminal proceeds, which can be frozen or confiscated, says the report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

Suspicious transactions and…

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