A WikiLeaks for Wildlife Gives Whistle-Blowers a Way to Turn in Environmental Criminals

WildLeaks’ target: poaching kingpins who have evaded capture.

(Photo: Ivan Lieman/AFP/Getty Images)

Sep 1, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

Illegal logging. Smuggling of primates for pets. Slaughtering elephants for their tusks. Around the world, environmental crime is on the rise. Now a new project that aims to be a WikiLeaks for wildlife is giving whistle-blowers a safe place to tip off authorities about poachers and other enviro-criminals.

Called WildLeaks, the project launched in February and is funded by Elephant Action League, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that fights wildlife crime. Wildlife crime is a $17 billion business each year, the fourth-most-profitable illicit trade in the world, according to Global Financial Integrity, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group.

When tips come in, they are put through a lengthy verification process and then turned over to law enforcement or other organizations for follow-up, according to WildLeaks founder Andrea Crosta, the executive director of Elephant Action League.

Crosta said WildLeaks’ first tip was about the smuggling of a wildlife product to the United States. Among the tips turned in are inside information on ivory trafficking in East Africa, tiger poaching in Sumatra, illegal trophy hunting in Southern Africa, illegal possession of endangered species in Gulf countries, and illegal logging in Mexico, Malawi, and Russia.

Since WildLeaks went live, the site has received dozens of tips. So far about 25 have been deemed reliable and potentially useful. On average, WildLeaks gets a few tips every week.

“The investigations are long and quite complex,” Crosta said. “We are not interested in facilitating the arrest of small-time poachers or traffickers; we’re aiming at the higher levels.”

He added, “Most of the energy goes toward jailing small-time poachers in the field, though the real problem is the traffickers and corrupt government officials behind those crimes—but getting to these people requires an understanding of criminal networks.”

While poachers and small-time wildlife traffickers are being jailed or killed, law enforcement officials haven’t been able to snare those who control poaching operations.

“It’s a shame, but it’s a big failure by everyone—the international community, even NGOs,” said Crosta. “To catch a real kingpin still remains a Holy Grail.”

Meanwhile, poaching continues unabated. At the start of the 19th century, there were 17 million elephants worldwide. By the beginning of the 20th century, the number had dwindled to 5 million, and today there are fewer than 500,000 elephants left.

More than 97 percent of tigers have been killed over the past century. Crosta says that lions may be the next big cats to disappear: Their population has dropped over the past 50 years from 200,000 to fewer than 20,000.

WildLeaks logs tips in four categories, one of which is wildlife crime’s toll on humans. That includes the exploitation of vulnerable communities by criminal organizations, poaching money that goes to support militia and terrorist groups, and the expansion of criminal activities—for example, when a weapon bought to kill elephant is later used to rob a bank.

Raising awareness about the human toll of wildlife crimes can elevate the discussion, especially in China and other Asian countries where newfound wealth has created a demand for ivory.

“We want to start a conversation not about elephants or rhinos but about people dying and human rights,” Crosta said.