At least 2,000 environmental experts, government officials and lawyers are meeting in Durban, South Africa to discuss ways to strengthen efforts to reduce international environmental crime. Organized gangs involved in criminal activity such as smuggling endangered species and illegal toxic waste dumping are earning more than $30 billion a year, and are a major threat to the environment.
Every year, in what law enforcement officials say is highly organized criminal activity, groups smuggle billions of dollars in endangered animals from developing countries around the world.
They also trade in illegal fishing, logging, precious minerals and are involved in the dumping of toxic wastes.
International legal experts say drug traffickers are now turning to the illegal trade in rare animals to boost illicit profits. They are using the same routes and methods as they employ for heroin and marijuana.
Legal experts and government officials have begun a four-day conference in Durban, South Africa to discuss international environmental crimes and ways to stop them.
The chairman of what is called the EnviroLaw conference is Francois Joubert who runs a South African-based company that specializes in international environmental law.
Mr. Joubert says gangs involved in organized environmental crime are an "enormous problem" that has become too big for law enforcement officials to control.
"They have huge syndicates and violent syndicates. They will go into an area with semi-automatic weapons and they will try to stop everyone and anyone that is trying to stop them," he explained. "So it is a problem and our problem is quite frankly the capacity to keep on enforcing, to keep on monitoring. These syndicates also have a lot of money, so it is easy access and then easy capacity for them to come in and deplete our natural resources."
Mr. Joubert says a single bird bought for a few dollars in the rainforest of Brazil can bring a smuggler as much as $10,000. The bones of an adult tiger can fetch more than $3,000.
He says illegal trade is often a two-way street. Illegal collectibles such as ivory or exotic wild animals are often shipped to developed countries while criminals make more than $10 billion a year dumping trash and hazardous waste from the developed world into sites in developing nations.
Mr. Joubert says treaties, such as the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which was signed by 140 countries, have failed to be affective.
"You know there is more than 500 international and regional treaties and policies, but rarely have we seen that they have been implemented on a national level," he said. " This is about strengthening enforcement and implementation mechanisms on a national or domestic level."
Mr. Joubert says participants in the EnviroLaw conference are seeking to create a better international legal framework to protect the environment by helping individual countries to form the best laws and enforcement procedures possible.
Conference leaders will present their findings at the World Summit on Sustainable Development next week in Johannesburg.