Officers of the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) inspect evidence against a suspected woman animal poacher, as military personnel from the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) look on.
Photo: © UN / Marie Frechon

Environmental Crime on the rise

Eco-crime hits a record high at up to USD 258 billion, outstripping the illegal trade in small arms, as international criminal gangs and militant groups profit from the plunder of Earth's resources.

The value of environmental crime is 26 per cent larger than previous estimates, at USD 91 258 billion today compared to USD 70 213 billion in 2014, according to a rapid response report published in June 2016 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL.

The report The Rise of Environmental Crime finds that weak laws and poorly funded security forces are enabling international criminal networks and armed rebels to profit from a trade that fuels conflicts, devastates ecosystems and is threatening species with extinction.

The world's fourth-largest criminal enterprise

Environmental crime dwarfs the illegal trade in small arms, which is valued at about USD 3 billion. It is the world's fourth-largest criminal enterprise after drug smuggling, counterfeiting and human trafficking. The amount of money lost due to environmental crime is ten thousand times greater than the amount of money spent by international agencies on combatting it - just USD 20-30 million.

The report recommends strong action, legislation and sanctions at the national and international levels, including measures targeted at disrupting overseas tax havens; an increase in financial support commensurate with the serious threat that environmental crime poses to sustainable development; and economic incentives and alternative livelihoods for those at the bottom of the environmental crime chain.

More than one quarter of the world's elephants has been killed in a decade

The last decade has seen environmental crime rise by at least 5-7 per cent per year. Environmental crime includes the illegal trade in wildlife, corporate crime in the forestry sector, the illegal exploitation and sale of gold and other minerals, illegal fisheries, the trafficking of hazardous waste and carbon credit fraud.

More than one quarter of the world's elephant population has been killed in a decade. Some of world's most vulnerable wildlife, like rhinos and elephants, are being killed at a rate that has grown by more than 25 per cent every year in the last decade.

There is a link between environmental crime and other criminal networks

The report also looks at how money generated from the illegal exploitation of natural resources funds rebel groups, terrorist networks and international criminal cartels. In the last decade, for example, poachers have killed an average of 3,000 elephants per year in Tanzania. That is an annual street market value for ivory traffickers of USD 10.5 million, an amount that is five times greater than the entire national budget of the country's wildlife division.

Organised criminal cartels
The report notes that transnational organised criminal networks are using environmental crime to launder drug money. Illegal gold mining in Colombia, for example, is now considered one of the easiest ways to launder money from the country's drug trade.

International criminal cartels are also involved in the trafficking of hazardous waste and chemicals, often mislabelling this type of waste in order to evade law enforcement agencies. In 2013, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that the illegal trade in e-waste to Southeast Asia and the Pacific was estimated at USD 3.75 billion annually.

Rebel groups
Criminal networks linked to the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have spent about 2 per cent of their proceeds to fund up to 49 different rebel groups. According to some estimates by the UN, the illegal exploitation of natural resources in eastern DRC is valued at USD 722-862 million annually.

Illegal logging
The value of forestry crimes, including corporate crimes and illegal logging, is estimated at USD 50-152 billion per year.

White collar crime
The report looks at the rise of white collar environmental crime, from the use of shell companies in tax havens to launder money generated from illegal logging to transfer mispricing, hacking and identity theft. Carbon trading is the world's fastest growing commodities market. Carbon credit fraud cases have involved sums of transfers and profits that stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars.


To combat the illegal trade in wildlife, the United Nations system and partners have launched their Wild For Life campaign to mobilise millions to take action against poaching and the trafficking of illegal wildlife products.

More information:
Download factsheet The Rise of Environmental Crime

Download report The Rise of Environmental Crime:

Visit Website “Wild For Life Campaign”: Wild For Life campaign


(UNEP/ile)