A new WikiLeaks-style website targeting the kingpins of wildlife crime has attracted serious leads on elephant, tiger, fishery and forest destruction across the globe in its first three months.
The WildLeaks website, which uses Tor technology to ensure anonymity, has been set up by Andrea Crosta, a security consultant who first revealed how the al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia generated funds via ivory smuggling.
The slaughter of elephants, rhinos, tigers and other species has surged in the last decade, part of an illicit wildlife trade worth $10-20bn a year according to Interpol. Only drugs, people and arms trafficking earn more for criminals and the corruption and violence accompanying wildlife crime takes a heavy toll on local communities.
“We had our first tip within 24 hours and the response has been beyond our wildest imagination,” said Mr. Crosta, now executive director of the Elephant Action League. He said the pervasive corruption means that whistleblowers frequently fear that contacting local law enforcement could put their lives in danger. “You can’t, for example, export containers full of ivory from Mombasa without bribing people left, right and centre,” Mr. Crosta said. “We definitely feel we are filling a gap.” A three-month trial period has yielded 24 serious tip-offs, spanning the world including: cents elephant poaching in Africa and illicit ivory trading in Hong Kong; cents killing of Sumatran tigers, of which there are just 400 left in the wild; cents illegal lion and leopard hunting in South Africa; cents chimpanzee trafficking in Liberia; cents illegal fishing activities in Alaska, including alleged mafia involvement; cents importing of illegal African wildlife products into the U.S.; cents illegal logging in Mexico, Malawi and Siberia.
Mr. Crosta said every tip is analysed by an expert team of legal and security experts, who determine whether to begin an investigation or share the information with trusted partners. Three ivory-related investigations are already underway, with the evidence submitted naming specific powerful people behind the trade that saw 22,000 elephants slaughtered for their tusks in 2012. Mr. Crosta said the lack of internet access in many parts of the world where wildlife crime is rife was not a major barrier to success, because WildLeaks is aimed at exposing the key players in the international crime networks, not the low-level operatives on the ground.
The WildLeaks site has 16 different language versions and smartphone app is also being considered. But Mr. Crosta said: “The problem with the phones is you’re never really anonymous.” “Clearly there’s huge potential for systems like WildLeaks to assist enforcement agencies, but the proof will be in the pudding,” said Richard Thomas, at Traffic, the global wildlife trade monitoring network. “If solid, actionable intelligence is received, it should result in meaningful action being taken against wildlife criminals.” He said the personal safety of potential whistleblowers was critical and that they should pay close attention the advice given on the WildLeaks site.
Investigations of wildlife crime can be slow and painstaking, said Mr. Crosta. He said it took 18 months to uncover the link between ivory smuggling and the al-Shabaab terrorists, work that began in 2011 when was a security consultant in east Africa. “It was about being introduced to the right clan and the right sub-clan, which is slow as people have to trust you.” Mr. Crosta revealed that tonnes of ivory, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of profit, were passing through Somalia every month. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014