Organized Crime & Criminal Syndicates

Organized crime

2018-01-18 /

Prior to the international ivory trade ban in 1989 the poachers of elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, and other animals relied, and continue to rely, on organized criminal syndicates to skirt local laws banning hunting of protected wildlife and international laws that were created to regulate the legal wildlife trade. Today these networks are still necessary to move and distribute illicit products, and even live animals, to buyers in regional or international markets.
Small-scale and regional-level syndicates run poaching and trafficking operations on the ground and pay poachers and couriers a modest amount for acquiring the animal parts. These groups may be small, but have enough resources and connections to disproportionately exploit the regional environment and local people. These syndicates are also responsible for creating or supporting trafficking networks and may also distribute weapons as well as bribe officials and police . In extreme cases they will even kidnap or financially indenture individuals and coerce them into service as ivory carriers or wildlife poachers. In parts of Africa and Asia these regional-level syndicates operate across international boundaries as they fund illegal hunting of high-value wildlife or trapping and smuggling of live animals, involving rural and urban people in an escalating wildlife crisis.
International wildlife traffickers are the major players of the illegal wildlife trade and may support regional criminal groups, supply weapons or financial aid, and bribe government officials. At this level wildlife traffickers procure illicit ivory, rhino horn, animal skins, and other products from regional syndicates and smuggle them to major departure points or receive shipments from abroad and smuggle them to destination markets. Shipments may be disguised as legal goods, such as peanuts or furniture, or are sealed in cargo containers with hundreds or even thousands of kilograms of contraband inside.
Seized shipments of illicit ivory from Africa have been recorded as containing more than 800 kg (1,764 pounds) of ivory . In 2015 Ugandan authorities seized three boxes within a shipment to Amsterdam contained 2,000 kg (4,400 pounds) of pangolin scales and roughly 700 kg (1,543 pounds) of ivory tusks. In 2013 seizures of illegal ivory are estimated to have exceeded 35,000 kilograms . With poachers in Africa earning roughly 5-10% of the selling price of the raw product the most well organized and highly-connected syndicates stand to make huge profits with every shipment that evades detection by customs officials.

Czech Republic Fraudulent Trophy Hunts:

A 2014 investigation in the Czech Republic led to the uncovering of a highly organized scam involving at least 16 Czech proxy hunters traveling to South Africa and killing rhino beginning in 2011. By using proxy hunters the South African business "Out of Africa," run by South African national Dawie Groenewald, the group was able to use a loophole in the country's laws on non-commercial hunting of protected wildlife. The horn was taken from South Africa to Czech Republic, with what may have been falsified trophy hunting documents. Czech customs officials caught the horn being shipped to Vietnam and South African officials began an investigation of the Groenewald property where the hunting had taken place. The 16 suspected members of the smuggling ring face up to 8 years in prison for their attempt to traffick 24 rhino horns (presumably from 12-24 rhino) worth roughly $5 million in Vietnam.


A poaching syndicate operating in Nepal and trafficking illicit animal parts, including rhinoceros horn, across international borders was dismantled in 2013 and its network of 13 poachers were arrested. However its ringleader, Nepalese national Rajkumar Praja, was able to flee to another country and initially escape arrest. In December of 2013 Praja became a top internationally wanted person after Interpol issued a Red Notice at Nepal's request. In 2014 he would become one of 136 fugitives targeted as part of "Operation Infra Terra," a coordinated law enforcement effort to locate and capture international fugitives. Praja was finally arrested and turned over to Nepalese authorities in February of 2015 after efforts to attain his whereabouts resulted in the discovery that he had been arrested in January by Royal Malaysian Police for traveling under a false passport.
As of a result of decreased regional violence and tough enforcement of wildlife protection, Nepal has seen a significant drop in rhino poaching since the 1990s. As of late 2016 the country has gone more than two years without losing a single rhinoceros.


High-profile elephant poacher and poaching syndicate ringleader Boniface Matthew Mariango, was arrested in October of 2015 after an investigation and manhunt that formally began in June 2014. Known to law enforcement as "Shetani," a Swahili word meaning "devil," 45-year-old Mariango had been the boss of at least 15 poaching syndicates and is attributed with the deaths of thousands of elephants in Tanzania as well Kenya, Burundi, Zambia, and Mozambique. Tanzania's law enforcement also claims that Mariango had been a major transnational supplier of vehicles and weapons to poaching syndicates.