A new public-private partnership targeting the global black market in wild animals and their body parts will encourage information sharing between financial institutions, conservation groups and financial intelligence units in Canada, South Africa, Australia, the U.K. and elsewhere, a Canadian official said Wednesday.
“Project Anton,” which will be led by Toronto-headquartered Scotiabank, is modeled on six ongoing Canadian public-private initiatives to combat money laundering associated with fentanyl trafficking, human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children and other crimes. The initiative is named for Anton Mzimba, a South African wildlife ranger who was murdered by poachers in July.
Barry MacKillop, deputy director of intelligence at the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada, or Fintrac, said criminal groups involved in the illegal wildlife trade are often also involved in trafficking drugs, weapons or vulnerable people.
“They’re just moving whatever commodity they can in order to make a profit,” MacKillop said. “Right now, wildlife trafficking seems to be a low-risk, high reward activity—we aim to change that.”
Fintrac also published an alert Tuesday telling banks and other financial institutions to watch for transactions that may relate both to wildlife being imported to Canada—particularly from China and sub-Saharan African countries—and to Canadian wildlife being exported to other jurisdictions, including the U.S. and China.
“Canadian importers are being used as financial intermediaries,” the advisory warns.
Joseph Mari, director of Scotiabank’s financial intelligence unit and external partnerships, said the bank first began making a concerted effort to monitor for transactions related to the illegal wildlife trade about a year ago.
“We added ‘wildlife trafficking’ and ‘wildlife trade’ to our media monitoring to spot names coming up in investigations internationally,” he said. “We’ve found a good number [of cases] to dispel the notion that this is not a North American problem.”
Mari hopes Project Anton will raise awareness of the topic and show financial crimes investigators that wildlife trafficking has become a “mainstream” concern.
In addition to its negative impact on animals and ecosystems, the unregulated trade in wildlife can spread disease to people or livestock, with potentially grave economic and public health consequences.
Fintrac’s alert, which is based on an analysis of about 200 suspicious transaction reports filed over the last decade, says wildlife traffickers often conceal their identities by using spouses or other family members as nominees. They may also launder proceeds through front companies, some of which may be involved in a licit animal-related line of business.
“For example, an overseas shipping company specializing in fisheries appeared to be co-mingling legitimate business funds with illicit funds from the illegal wildlife trade of eels,” the advisory says.
In addition to media monitoring for individuals known to be involved in the black-market wildlife trade, financial institutions should be on the lookout for payments to or from entities in the “traditional medicine” market and businesses such as aquariums, zoos, veterinary clinics, and suppliers of cages or freight equipment.
Other indicators include frequent payments to shipping services and frequent wire or money transfers to or from “jurisdictions of concern for wildlife crime,” including China, Hong Kong, Australia and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Sometimes, transfers may specifically reference animal species or parts.
The illegal wildlife trade globally is estimated to generate some $20 billion each year, MacKillop said, but Fintrac could not provide figures for Canada specifically.
Fintrac’s U.S. counterpart, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, is not among the initiative’s listed partners, but MacKillop said FinCEN supports the initiative and will work with Canada as it does on other priorities. FinCEN released an analysis of data in December 2021 highlighting trends in wildlife trafficking-related suspicious activity reports in the U.S.
Project Anton is also backed by United for Wildlife, a conservation effort created by Prince William and the Royal Foundation that works with the financial and transportation sectors to combat wildlife trafficking.
Stephen Scott, a former financial crimes investigator with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said Project Anton deserved credit for highlighting the role of middlemen in the illicit wildlife trade. Scott, who has helped investigate smugglers moving bear parts out of Canada and leopard parts into the country, said wildlife trafficking investigations have long suffered from a lack of information when attempting to trace the flow of money and goods.
“Kudos to this Fintrac initiative for not just considering the poachers or the end users but going after the people in between, from shipping to warehousing,” he said. “Who is getting paid, and what businesses are involved?”
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|Anti-money laundering , Know Your Customer
|February 1, 2023