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Push for Whistleblowers to Report Illegal Wildlife Trafficking

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  • Posted on: Jun 11 2018

On May 8, 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued recommendations for the purpose of increasing the effectiveness of paying whistleblowers to report illegal wildlife trafficking. Wildlife trafficking, one of the top-ranked illegal trades in the world, accounts for approximately $23 billion a year, with the United States as one of the greatest contributors.

Animal Trafficking and the Push for Accountability

According to the GAO report (here), trafficking has “pushed several endangered species to the brink of extinction,” devastating “wild populations of elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, pangolins, turtles, exotic birds, and many other species.”

The report was prepared at the request of Oregon Senator, Ron Wyden. It details the GAO’s findings of an audit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regarding their use of rewards for whistleblowers of wildlife crime, during the years 2007-2017. Both agencies have concurred with the GAO’s guidance and recommendations in letters of response.

Senator Wyden believes that the agencies that have been tasked with protecting and combating the trafficking of endangered wildlife are not doing enough. He requested that the GAO look into the underuse of financial incentives as a method for encouraging whistleblowers to report such illegal conduct.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK) recently introduced the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act of 2018 (WCATA). (Here.) The purpose of the legislation is to enhance the ability of informants worldwide to use qui tam laws to report wildlife crimes. The WCATA is a legislative fix that builds on the GAO’s findings by obligating FWS, NOAA, and many other federal agencies to augment and improve their use of financial rewards to pay wildlife trafficking whistleblowers.

In her floor speech introducing the legislation, Rep. Bordallo said: “this bipartisan bill confronts the global black-market trade in illegal wildlife and seafood products driving iconic wildlife to extinction and responsible for countless human rights abuses.”

If passed, the WCATA will mandate that the Department of Interior, the agency that oversees FWS, and the Department of Commerce, the agency that oversees NOAA, to create and implement wildlife whistleblower reward programs. It also mandates the establishment of Whistleblower Offices in several other agencies, and the creation of confidential and anonymous programs to report wildlife crimes. Under the WCATA, whistleblowers would receive at least 15%, and as much as 50%, of the funds recovered from successful prosecution.

Anonymous Whistleblower Files Complaint Against Facebook

According to a recently filed complaint by an anonymous whistleblower to the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding Facebook, the social media giant has been accused of being one of the world’s largest sources for endangered wildlife trafficking.

Attorneys for the anonymous whistleblower released a statement:

The amount of wildlife being traded on closed and secret groups on Facebook is horrifying. We saw multiple products: rhino horn, bear claws, tiger skins, reptiles, and tons and tons of ivory. At a time when the world is losing 30,000 elephants a year to poachers, the amount of ivory sold on Facebook is particularly shocking.

Over months of working undercover, the attorneys traveled abroad to confirm that the products listed on Facebook were in fact real. Chat apps, including WhatsApp, have been used to communicate things like pricing of the illegal items.

Is Facebook Compliant with Trafficking?

For Stephen Kohn, the pro-bono executive director for the National Whistleblower Center, the lack of follow-through is appalling. “I’ve done whistleblowing for 33 years. Seen pretty much everything. And for criminal activity to be this open and for the United States government not to be cracking down on it aggressively, is absolutely shocking. You can go on Facbook today and you’ll see every single endangered species for sale. Some live, some dead. It’s pretty shocking. What we saw immediately was the Facebook was most likely the number one source of trafficking worldwide.”

Kohn claims that Facebook had been made aware of the illegal activities occurring on its site despite Mark Zuckerberg’s denial of knowledge. He argues that Facebook is guilty of more than just housing illegal activity or failing to properly monitor itself, but that it is “aiding and abetting” the crimes.

They are no longer a neutral party. They are no longer an innocent bystander. You can look at the page where the trafficker puts the item and right next to it, there are advertisements. They are profiting from that trafficking. Our belief is the moment they ran those ads on trafficker pages, they’re actually outside the immunities.

The Global Wildlife Whistleblower Program continues to fight against the illegal wildlife trafficking industry.


It should prove interesting to see whether Facebook can be held liable for profiting off of the illegal activity.

On the legislative front, the WCATA appears to be a step in the right direction. It would empower federal agencies responsible for the enforcement of wildlife trafficking to use whistleblowers in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking. As this Blog has noted in prior posts, whistleblowers can be an effective tool in the fight against wrongdoing.

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