From a Colombian rebel group that controls a tungsten mine to armed African groups that sell ivory, organised environmental crime is outpacing the ability of law enforcement agencies to control it, according to the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (Gitoc).
The reason: The impunity of so-called "kingpins" of crimes ranging from illegal wildlife trade - alone worth around US$19 billion (S$23.7 billion) a year - and illegal fishing estimated at US$23 billion, to logging and the trade of toxic waste.
A Gitoc report says their operations span the globe, taking advantage of corrupt officials and enforcement that mainly targets low or mid-level poachers and smugglers and leaves the wealthy and well-connected unscathed.
"We are throwing sand in the wind, unless we address the unholy trinity of criminal enterprise, big business and political elites," said the think-tank. It recommends a new international protocol specifically aimed at environmental crime.
One example of the failure to apprehend an alleged kingpin is a US$1 million reward put up by the US State Department for "dismantling" a wildlife trafficking network reportedly run by Lao businessman Vixay Keosavang. But there is no arrest warrant out for him in Laos.
By contrast, a Thai, Chumlong Lemtongthai, is in a South African prison, jailed in 2011 for 30 years for a scam that used loopholes in the law to stage rhino hunts. Documentation on his laptop showed that he had agreed to supply Mr Vixay's company with 50 rhino horns.
An Interpol "red notice" has been issued for the arrest of another Thai associated with Chumlong, Punpitak Chunchom, the report said.
There is much documentation on Mr Vixay but The Straits Times was unable to locate him for an interview. The report describes him as "a Laotian businessman with powerful political connections and reported ties to the country's military".
"He allegedly oversees a criminal syndicate known as the 'Xaysavang network' and has been 'implicated in the smuggling and slaughter of thousands of animals including pangolins, primates, reptiles, snakes, rhinos, elephants, lions and tigers'," the report says.
The US government describes his network as "one of the most prolific international wildlife trafficking syndicates in operation".
Police had better success in a case of illegal logging in Indonesia. Last year, police officer Labora Sitorus was jailed for eight years after investigations showed that he had as much as US$127 million in bank transactions linked to his timber company.
Former Interpol officer Justin Gosling, the main author of the report, told The Straits Times that Sitorus was a mid-level catch, and that convictions of top officials remain "conspicuously absent".
"Environmental crime is one of the most damaging, high profile and economically significant fields of global criminal activity," the report says.
"Now it must be considered also a criminal issue, with serious implications for human security and state integrity."
This article was first published on June 19, 2014.
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