OTTAWA — Sheldon Jordan leads a group of international crime fighters tackling corruption, terrorism and even climate change around the world.
“We’re actually trying to stop bad guys from wrecking the planet for the rest of us,” says Jordan, who is technically not a superhero but a plain-speaking public servant with a pretty cool job.
A passionate protector of everything from wild ginseng to Tibetan antelopes, Jordan was recently re-elected chair of the Wildlife Crime Working Group at Interpol, which develops and leads efforts to combat the poaching, trafficking and possession of legally protected animals and plants on a black market estimated to be worth up to $30 billion (U.S.) a year.
“We’re dealing with bad guys who realize they can earn a lot of money,” says Jordan, who is also director general of wildlife enforcement at Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The Toronto Star met Jordan and wildlife enforcement officer Jean-François Dubois at an undisclosed location one morning to have a look at some of the stuff the federal government has seized within our borders over the years, which they keep for training purposes.
The room was stuffed to the ceiling with products made from plant or animal species either banned or restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), including a rhinoceros horn worth about $300,000 on the black market — hence the bit about this being an undisclosed location.
The poaching of rhinoceros has risen dramatically in recent years, with 1,215 rhinos killed in South Africa last year compared to 13 in 2007.
“We can see that they are literally being decimated,” says Jordan.
A young male lion — backed with felt — is draped over a table that also holds a carved elephant tusk, laryngitis pills containing black bear gall, a feather duster made with ostrich feathers and an armadillo.
Bookends made using zebra hooves, a briefcase lined with cheetah fur, a leopard-skin coat, the skin of an African rock python and crocodile jerky from Thailand line other shelves and tables in the small room.
Wildlife crime, which also includes illegal forestry, is the fourth most-lucrative type of crime in the world after narcotics, counterfeiting and human trafficking. Prices keep rising.
“Our biggest challenge right now is the fact that wildlife crime is being driven by greed and it’s happening a lot in places that don’t have the ability to control it,” says Jordan.
The money that comes from wildlife crime fuels other crimes as well, including terrorism.
For example, Jordan says, there are reports that charcoal produced from illegally burning forests is being transported through conflict areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and then shipped out of ports controlled by Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Somalia.
“Interpol is working to develop strategies not only just to take on wildlife crime, but also to take on all the other crimes that are linked, because really in the end, bad guys are bad guys, they are going to do whatever makes them money and has the least risk of getting them in jail,” says Jordan.
Wildlife crime also impacts climate change.
“The amount of carbon that is being released as a result of illegal fires in Indonesia basically dwarfs all of the other emissions of carbon in that country,” Jordan says.
His work at Interpol includes helping developing countries build the capacity to prevent, investigate and prosecute these crimes, such as through the delightfully named Project Wisdom (elephants and rhinos), Project Predator (Asian tigers and other big felines) and Project Leaf (the trees).
Interpol is also looking into creating a strategy for dealing with shahtoosh, luxury shawls made from the fine undercoat of the endangered Tibetan antelope, or chiru.
Jordan says the world community came together to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope and got things under control within five years.
“We were all very proud. Unfortunately, we couldn’t sit on our laurels,” says Jordan, who says about 20 per cent of the population has been poached in the past couple of years.
Canada experiences its share of wildlife crime too, not just as a market and transit stop on the way to even bigger U.S. market, but also as a source of wild American ginseng, which is being illegally harvested in Quebec and Ontario.
Jordan says they are also keeping their eye on the walrus in the Canadian Arctic, as its tusks may start becoming an alternative source of ivory as elephants grow scarcer.
The monumental task of fighting wildlife crime, which Jordan says does not usually get the attention that governments pay to other types of crime, or their harsh prison sentences, can be overwhelming.
“Criminals move fast. Criminals are very adaptive. They are always a step ahead of police. That is just the nature of the beast, no pun intended,” Jordan says.
“Time is limited in terms of stopping the crime that’s happening. There is an end point. If you look at other traditional crime areas — your violent crimes, your drugs — those are all terrible, horrible things, but there is no end point. It is going to go on forever because it has been going on forever. If we mess up with some of these species, that’s it,” says Jordan.