Metropolitan police detective turned wildlife crime-fighter Christian Plowman talks trafficking, methods and tactics, the criminal chain and disrupting the world’s fourth most profitable illegal trade.
Firstly, can you introduce yourself and your role at ZSL?
Christian Plowman, and I work in ZSL’s Conservation Programmes as the Law Enforcement Advisor. My job is to support and advise ZSL and its partners – for example, local and national law enforcement agencies – on tackling illegal wildlife trade (IWT).
Before ZSL, you worked as a detective in London tackling serious crime such as illicit drugs, guns and even murder. Why did you make the move into conservation?
After I left the police, and worked in the private sector for a while, I was offered a role with INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization) in Kenya looking at transnational ivory and rhino horn trafficking. This was my first foray into conservation and the illegal wildlife trade, and it was from this that a natural progression into the role at ZSL ensued.
How does illegal wildlife trade differ from the crimes you investigated as a detective? Are there any similarities?
Crime and trafficking are the same regardless of the commodity. They are still investigated and dealt with in the same way – intelligence and evidence is still acquired in the same way. The perpetrators use the same methods and tactics, and the illegal wildlife trade is no different. ZSL is unique in that it adopts a much more rounded approach to supporting counter trafficking and we engage with multiple law enforcement agencies, not just those focused on the illegal wildlife trade. It’s important to recognise the fact that knowledgeable, capable and effective law enforcement officers – who can investigate and cultivate intelligence, regardless of the crime – are a positive benefit long term.
Could you tell us more about the scale of illegal wildlife trade? How does it affect wildlife and surrounding communities?
The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most profitable illegal trade globally after drugs, guns and humans. It’s essential to understand that the poacher who has been paid $20 to kill an elephant is part of an inherently transnational criminal chain, stretching across multiple borders. It is often this role of the local poacher which impacts negatively on the community, as this can often be one of few or the sole source of income for the poacher and his family. Alternative livelihoods need to be available, coupled with an awareness of the impact of the illegal wildlife trade.
It has also got to be taken into account, however, that local communities, who rely on meat and other animal products for daily sustenance or financial survival, should not necessarily be treated as organised criminals. It is these middle parts of that criminal chain – the facilitators, the handlers, the fixers and the logistics personnel – which we are missing out on from an intelligence and investigation perspective. Communities can be positively impacted through efficient, well-trained, well-supported law enforcement, be that the police or wildlife rangers – there is a huge longer-term benefit to our work with law enforcement which is often overlooked.
What scares you most about illegal wildlife trade?
The sheer scale of it, and the deeply entrenched levels of corruption are a real cause for concern. For the illegal wildlife trade to be deterred and shut down, governments need to adequately address the complex transnational web leveraged by poachers and traffickers, across all levels of society. One way of addressing this is by disrupting these individuals through cogent and thorough financial investigations, covert anti-corruption drives and the proper, transparent use of intelligence.
What is ZSL doing to combat this crisis?
ZSL has several projects across the globe focused on combatting the illegal wildlife trade. I predominantly work with our team in Cameroon, Africa – with a fantastic colleague called Samuel, who supports our efforts and staff all over the world. ZSL provides advice, support and training in core policing skills, basic investigative training and intelligence-related training to a multitude of frontline law enforcement officers. I have been involved in delivering bespoke training courses to over 260 law enforcement officers. Some of the officers that were trained were responsible for one of Cameroon’s biggest ivory seizures (over 400kg in December 2017, with the same team seizing another 191kg in May 2018) and disrupting a major network comprising corrupt military officials.
Another multi-agency team in Benin, who received specialised training through ZSL, made Benin’s biggest ever illegal wildlife trade seizure in March 2018, seizing over half a tonne of pangolin scales. It’s so rewarding to know that with every seizure we make, we prevent that product flooding the market, and increasing the demand – whether that’s ivory or pangolin scales. It was also great to hear from the Beninese team, that without the training they had received from ZSL they would not have made the seizure.
Do you have a personal highlight or achievement you could share with us?
I think just having the job I have here is a pretty cool achievement – ZSL are very unique in that they have my role, and I am privileged to work with some amazing people. I have loads of highlights – the big seizures noted above, the globally ground-breaking forensic work we are doing with University of Portsmouth with pangolin scales, the glut of impending exciting projects we have ongoing, the list goes on. A personal highlight is simply meeting law enforcement officers who work in challenging conditions, and yet readily take onboard the advice and the training, so that they can do something which could change the course of someone’s life or have an impact on the future of an animal.
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