A Detailed Primer in Fighting Wildlife Crime

Bob Ladendorf

Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice. Edited by William Moreto. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. 2018. ISBN: 978-1-4399-1472-4. 306 pp. Hardcover, $104.50; softcover, $37.95; Kindle, $37.95.

The body parts of some wildlife, such as rhino horn, are more valuable than gold or heroin. The worldwide illegal trade is, in fact, one of the top four types of transnational crime (the other three include narcotics, human trafficking, and military weapons). This illegal trade attracts criminal networks that often smuggle wildlife parts along with legitimate goods. The demand for wildlife and their body parts, many of which are from endangered species, is so great because of population growth, global wealth, and superstitious beliefs. The markets will continue to expand despite efforts by governments, NGOs, environmental organizations, and individuals to stop the demand and the culture of consumption and corruption.

These are just a few of the highlights gleaned from the new book Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice, edited by William Moreto, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. Moreto has gathered a number of academics to lay a foundation, explore methodologies, and describe real-world efforts to thwart wildlife crime. While this is an academic book, its comprehensive coverage of the range of crimes and how those are fought nationally and internationally makes the book a good primer.

Of particular interest are the scattered descriptions of the demand for wildlife parts worldwide, but particularly in the East Asian countries, for their alleged traditional Chinese medicinal properties, as souvenirs or good-luck trinkets, and as money-makers and status symbols. Turtle eggs are believed to have aphrodisiac qualities; elephant ivory has been used as religious icons, among many other uses; and, as Louise Shelley and Kasey Kinnard state in their chapter, those buying rhino horn and ivory in Asia “are doing so as an investment, banking on the extinction or increased rarity of animals … or as a means of displaying wealth for the growing middle class, particularly in Vietnam … .”

That demand, according to one chapter writer, keeps prices high in the black market because of the scientifically unproven beliefs that the illegal animal products cure diseases such as cancer and ensures “the emergence of criminal networks involved in large-scale poaching and smuggling operations all over the world.” While another writer disputes the assertion about criminal networks in his chapter, the overwhelming evidence from other researchers demonstrates the impact of criminal enterprises. This evidence includes the recent Elephant Action League investigative report about the involvement of a Mexican cartel and the Chinese mafia in the smuggling of totoaba fish swim bladders. This has caused the near-extinction of vaquitas, a marine mammal that is caught in gill nets. Law enforcement arrests worldwide demonstrate the impact of these criminal enterprises.

While the book includes useful theoretical frameworks for studying the often-elusive process of wildlife parts trafficking, such as Smith’s 1980 “spectrum-based theory of enterprise”—that organized crime is a transnational business instead of Godfather-like ethnic groups—other chapters feature mind-numbing theoretical constructs and needless organizational charts. At times, reading the book gave me a MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) reaction, a term I learned years ago while attending a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C. In addition, a glossary of terms and organizations would have enhanced the book.

Nevertheless, there are excellent nuggets of information scattered throughout the book.

For instance, in that same MEGO chapter promoting a transdisciplinary approach to wildlife crime prevention, the writers mention that another source argues that “iconic species such as tigers, Asian bear, Asian rhino, and pangolin are under more pressure from illegal hunting than they are from habitat loss, and … we risk losing these wild animals in a few years if this criminal activity continues.”

Other chapters dealing with the impact of corruption and globalization, surprising ecotourism demands, wildlife rangers who risk their lives, and “pseudohunts” make for compelling reading and understanding of the range of pressures on wildlife in recent times.

Perhaps no better description of the cruelty and pseudoscientific beliefs driving humans is the condor-bull fights. For the Andean Yawar Fiesta, a condor is tied to the top of a bull, who is deliberately disoriented with explosives while the condor claws and chews the bull to death. The absurd “traditional” ceremony now has been adapted so that a “performance” for tourists brings more money to the communities. As for the “woo” factor, one seller says that condor feathers are used “for cleaning the coronary chakra, cleaning bad energies.”

In an opening chapter, Avi Brisman and Nigel South discuss criminology approaches, emphasizing that the traditional criminology is anthropocentric and needs to be refined so that more emphasis is made on wildlife crimes. They quote a wildlife protection organization director who says that we face a global extinction of wildlife for the first time since the demise of the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. That sobering thought will stick with the reader throughout the book. In their concluding remarks, the writers quote another source:

One thing that remains clear is that “as the planet’s remaining wilderness is degraded, each generation grows up with an increasingly impoverished view of natural biodiversity, so that human experience itself is undergoing a form of extinction … .” If this continues, then future generations may inherit an Earth bereft of biodiversity—one without animals in the wild or in the realm of human fantasy.

Moreto has put together a wealth of approaches to new ways of thinking about criminology and wildlife crime. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That ounce of prevention includes overturning human superstitions, greed, and status so that never-ending pound of cure can be made unnecessary.

Bob Ladendorf

Bob Ladendorf is the chief operating officer of CFI/L.A. As a freelance writer, he co-authored The Mad Gasser of Mattoon in the July/August 2002 Skeptical Inquirer.


Wildlife Crime: From Theory to Practice. Edited by William Moreto. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press. 2018. ISBN: 978-1-4399-1472-4. 306 pp. Hardcover, $104.50; softcover, $37.95; Kindle, $37.95. The body parts of some wildlife, such as rhino horn, are more valuable than gold or heroin. The worldwide illegal trade is, in fact, one of the top four …

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