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A Sit-Down With Former State Department Senior Advisor on Wildlife Trafficking: Jessica Graham

By Alex Wyckoff

Source: National Geographic

When working on the JIPS podcast, RealTalk, Myles and I try to aim for a wide variety of policy topics and guests, especially in areas where we ourselves could stand to learn more. In mid-August a wonderful opportunity arose wherein we were able to chat with and interview Jessica Graham, the President of JG Global Advisory, where she provides strategic solutions at the cross section of both law enforcement and environmental conservation. Jessica has also served as a Senior Advisor to the State Department under the Obama administration, where she was the head of a $40 million program to combat wildlife trafficking.

Wildlife trafficking, the illicit trade of protected animal species and their body parts, is a seldom-discussed issue in mainstream political discourse. Despite this, it represents a tremendous threat not just to animals but to humanity, the planet, and society as a whole.

The Department of Justice refers to wildlife trafficking as, “decimating many species worldwide and threatening iconic species such as rhinoceroses, elephants, and tigers with extinction,” going further to say that the practice, “threatens security, hinders economic development, and undermines the rule of law.”

When we spoke with Jessica, the first question that we asked her was what she wishes more people knew about wildlife trafficking. She spoke to how wildlife-trafficking should be thought of as a high priority problem that intersects with economic management, environmental protectionism, animal rights, and even the likes of indigenous rights and the rights of consumers.

Jessica explained that wildlife trafficking does not affect only wildlife, though certainly the decimating of endangered and protected populations wreaks significant damage upon our earth’s delicate ecosystem. Wildlife trafficking also affects human life both at the individual level and the societal level.

To begin with, there is the issue of transporting animals or the body parts of animals across international borders. It is the very reason that declaration of goods is required at most airports around the world. Transportation of these animals and their parts has high potential for bringing other foreign wildlife into ecosystems that they were not meant to be in, often with disastrous consequences for the natural-born creatures inhabiting these ecosystems.

Because the foreign wildlife evolved in a completely different ecosystem, it often has advantages that wildlife natural to the area has not yet adapted to, allowing the foreign wildlife to decimate native populations and severely disrupt the food chain and even the ecosystem itself. This can come in the form of ants, viruses and bacteria, plant spores, and any number of other creatures, all of which have the potential to destroy entire ecosystems. Such threats affect not only the wilderness but also local agriculture, destroying species that help local plant life and crops. In some cases, the local plant life and crops themselves are the ones directly decimated by new, invasive species.

Yet this is not the only threat posed by wildlife trafficking. Many indigenous populations around the world rely on their natural wildlife, sometimes for food, sometimes for the purpose of following the wildlife migration patterns for their own nomadic lifestyles. Disruption of this wildlife directly harms the lifestyles and diets of indigenous populations.

Even then, there are more wide reaching effects of wildlife trafficking. There are many local economies which depend on tourism for survival, with the primary tourist attractions often being the ability to see wildlife rarer in other parts of the world.

Discussing these topics, admittedly with some dawning horror about how far-reaching the ramifications of wildlife-trafficking are, Myles and I proceeded to ask Jessica what can be done.

Though she was optimistic about much of what has been accomplished in the field in recent years, Jessica acknowledged that there is still much to be done and that the current predicament can look quite bleak.

A great deal of seizure of illegal trafficking products occurs each year, but seizure data is difficult because it needs to be specific, reliable, and verifiable, and countries differ on their metrics of reporting. This leads to a situation where wildlife trafficking is a crime with a low risk of detection and a high potential payoff. In fact, ivory can go for more than cocaine and more than gold, making it highly profitable and thus a very attractive realm of crime to enter into. Low risk of being caught and prosecuted, potential for very high monetary reward. When combing through sales of such objects, it can be difficult even to establish whether the sale was legal or illegal, making any criminal conviction that much more complex to acquire. To this end, we learned that it is also common for militant organizations and warlords to use this market as an additional source of revenue because of its being difficult to enforce.

Jessica also spoke to the intersection of wildlife trafficking and cybercrime. The advent of the internet has allowed global connectivity like never before, and likewise this has allowed criminal conspirators to thrive through unprecedented new avenues of communication that are difficult for law enforcement to track. For instance, Jessica recounted to us about the marketplaces of the clearnet and the darknet. The clearnet can be thought of as the internet most of us know and use in our day to day lives. The darknet can be thought of as a more secretive part of the internet, a series of sites typically accessed through specialized browsers such as Tor, which proxies the user’s connection by bouncing it around different geographic areas globally. This allows darknet users to engage in the criminal marketplace online with reduced fear of their IP address being tracked by the authorities, and it enables a number of other security features for criminal conspirators as well. Applied to wildlife trafficking, this presents a conundrum for policymakers.

The technology to detect, track, and investigate these crimes is already tough and expensive to acquire, but according to Jessica, even then it isn’t enough. Even in nations where legislation has been passed to enable better detection, tracking, and investigation, wildlife trafficking is seldom a highly prioritized issue, often left by the wayside in favor of championing other topics. Lack of priority often means lack of budget, creating a limitation on the resources for enforcement of anti wildlife trafficking laws.

Even when there is more political will, the endeavor requires tremendous effort and international cooperation, making the task not only complex but expensive and time-consuming. Jessica recounted to us how some of her greatest professional challenges have been times where she had to stay away for multiple consecutive days on end in order to complete a project or conclude discussions with different professional and governmental bodies.

Asked how we could improve in combating wildlife-trafficking, Jessica explained to us that it’s a matter of risk management. Enforcement must be guided by proactive, rather than reactive, solutions, and should thus proactively gather intelligence that will assist with predicting and deterring these crimes. What enforcement should not do is be reactive, gathering intelligence only after the crime has already taken place.

Trust and cooperation between members of interagency task forces across multiple countries are also necessary, as the human analysis aspect of combating wildlife-trafficking is vital and cannot be replaced by computer scanning. Additionally, intersection between different areas of expertise is important, as oftentimes wildlife investigators can lack the training and skills to perform tasks such as investigating cybercrime, a tech-heavy endeavor. To that end, Jessica has worked to bring together different groups of lawmakers and law enforcement as well as private tech companies to share best practices with one another.

Ultimately while we learned a great deal about wildlife-trafficking from Jessica, we also learned that there is a great deal that we don’t know about, and even more that the general public is also ignorant of. Combating wildlife-trafficking will require a collective approach, something that demands more education of average people in their day to day lives.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For those interested in learning more about wildlife trafficking, please check out information presented on the JG Global Advisory website by Clicking Here.

Jessica was also kind enough to recommend to us to Illegal Wildlife Trade on The Darknet, a report by INTERPOL. Below, you can also find a number of writings Jessica is the author or co-author of that speak in great detail on this topic. Click any of the links below to learn more.


Alex Wyckoff is a community organizer and former employee of the California Democratic Party. He is currently a second year graduate student studying public policy at UC San Diego with a focus in security policy and social inequality.


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