World Wildlife Day: Why More Partnerships are Needed

Partnering for nature: more joint efforts are needed to help safeguard biodiversity, including in the environmental crime space. Image: sudtawee / Adobe Stock

Today is World Wildlife Day, a UN International day celebrating the planet’s biodiversity. This year’s theme – Partnerships for Wildlife Conservation – reminds of us of the urgent need to sustain existing partnerships and build new ones in the fight against wildlife crime and human-induced species extinction.

This fight is a global one. Species extinction and biodiversity decline are more than just environmental issues. Declining biodiversity, along with climate change, is one of the greatest threats to human security. The UN Environment Programme described nature as ‘critical to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees’. Wild species are a critical source of food, energy, materials, medicine and income for billions of people in both developed and developing countries. Yet, over a million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction from overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, with the rate of species extinction accelerating.

As with the climate emergency, in recent years we have witnessed an increased willingness from the international community to address the issue. In December 2022, part two of the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) was held in Canada. This saw governments from around the world come together to sign a so-called ‘historic deal’ furthering commitments to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.

November 2022 saw the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) COP19 hosted in Panama. CITES is tasked with regulating international trade in wild species, and COP19 was labelled a ‘win for wildlife’, with parties agreeing to greater commitments to protect species from illegal and unsustainable trade. This year’s World Wildlife Day, in fact, marks 50 years since the signing of CITES in 1973.

Despite countries uniting for these two landmark agreements, neither COP passed without criticism. COP15 was criticised by conservation groups for its low ambition and for failing to hold countries accountable to their commitments. This, against a backdrop where governments have consistently failed to meet the targets they set for themselves on nature. COP19, meanwhile, was attacked for failing to properly address issues over indigenous peoples and local communities’ legal use of wild species. In many regions, sustainable use of wild species is vital to human existence and local livelihoods.

Yet, criticism aside, these international agreements serve another important function, acting as a bridge for crucial partnerships to be formed. Some of the most effective wildlife conservation work is achieved through smaller-scale alliances.

Cross-Sector Alliances to Tackle Environmental Crime

Tackling biodiversity loss and species extinction requires action at every level from the global to the local, and from the public to the private sector. In the environmental crime space, RUSI and its partners have been making headway.

By targeting the true beneficiaries of environmental crime, sustainable uses of wildlife can be protected

With environmental crime encompassing a multitude of harmful activities including illegal wildlife trade (IWT); illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; and the illicit exploitation of other natural resources, it is a highly lucrative illicit economy, worth $281 billion per year. Targeting the illicit actors involved in these crimes is crucial to safeguarding biodiversity.

Here, partnerships between the public and private sector can make a big impact. Recognising the important role financial institutions play in combatting IWT, RUSI helped establish the United for Wildlife IWT Financial Taskforce. This initiative saw major global financial institutions commit to sharing resources and intelligence with law enforcement and to training staff to better identify suspicious financial activity relating to wildlife trafficking.

However, global taskforces – just like international agreements – also need reinforcing at the national level. Recognising that the risks of biodiversity loss are not spread evenly – regions with the most species are more at risk – RUSI has partnered with NGOs around the world to build capacity at the local level to tackle environmental crime. By delivering training and practical resources to security and law-enforcement agencies and private-sector companies, our projects are making an impact in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions. These include East and Southern Africa, West and Central Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. However, RUSI is not alone in these efforts. International NGOs such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, the WWF, TRAFFIC and the Basel Institute on Governance are implementing similar strategies.

This alliance is equipping governments with some of the resources needed to keep to their international agreements – one step towards reaching the targets they set themselves on nature. Applying ‘follow-the-money’ techniques to environmental crime also helps mitigate the risk of enforcement strategies causing unintended harms to vulnerable and marginalised groups and communities. By targeting the true beneficiaries of environmental crime – organised criminal groups and corrupt actors who overexploit natural resources for profit – sustainable uses of wildlife can be protected.

There is a need for more partnerships promoting self-sustaining initiatives with local authorities and communities

Yet, despite the progress made to date, World Wildlife Day reminds us that existing efforts are just a fraction of what is really needed.

Little Drops Make a Mighty Ocean

There are opportunities for new partnerships at every level. At the macro level, new alliances are needed to protect a wider range of threatened species and other targeted natural resources. As a recent RUSI commentary noted, IUU fishing threatens countless species and food security, yet receives far less attention than IWT. Similarly, risks around the exploitation of naturally occurring minerals needed for the green energy transition are largely ignored.

Yet, more partnerships are also needed at the micro level. To date, conservation initiatives have been predominantly delivered by civil society actors. Of course, there are merits to international NGOs working on the ground – not least the financial resources they often bring with them – but the long-term impact is sometimes limited. There is a need for more partnerships promoting self-sustaining initiatives with local authorities and communities, including sustainable, long-term capacity building programmes for security and law enforcement agencies.

The decline in biodiversity and the extinction of species are the direct results of human activity. Yet environmental security and human security are also intrinsically interlinked. To limit further damage to our wildlife, sustaining existing partnerships and building new ones will be vital.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Lauren Young

Former Research Fellow

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