An international response to a crime without borders

Environmental crime is an expanding crime area and a growing international problem. The significance of this kind of crime cannot be under-estimated when it has a direct impact on the economic, environmental and cultural lives of communities worldwide with serious impacts on human health, biodiversity and the environment.

While it is difficult to put a figure on the money made from the illegal trade in wildlife, electronic waste and hazardous chemicals the potential profits are huge. In this respect, there is evidence to suggest that some environmental criminals also engage in other significant areas of crime, referred to as ‘crossover crime’. These crime types vary but include murder, falsification and forgery of documents, passport fraud, corruption, bribing officials, possession and use of illegal weapons, and other smuggling issues such as drugs, firearms, and human trafficking. Against this backdrop, INTERPOL first became active in the fight against environmental crime in 1992 and its activities have grown significantly since, expanding areas of co-operation with many national, international and non-governmental agencies across its network of 188 member countries.

Evidence of INTERPOL’s success thus far is the recent launch of a dedicated Environmental Crime Programme which now recognizes that there are many types of environmental crime, varying in immediacy and scope. Environmental crime is not confined to wildlife or pollution, it also includes, but is not limited to, climate change crime and corruption, ocean related crimes such as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, illegal logging, bio-security and natural resource crime such as water theft or protected area interference.

Tracking and understanding the modus operandi of criminals is today at the heart of INTERPOL’s’ efforts to tackle environmental crime. INTERPOL works to achieve this by delivering state-of-the-art services and tools such as its secure international law enforcement communication system, its internationally wanted persons alert (Red Notice) or its extensive international nominal criminal database. From a criminal perspective, environmental crime is often seen to be a high-profit, but low-risk crime. This low-risk status can be the result of inadequate detection due to a lack of environmental law enforcement expertise, resources and priorities.

It can also be down to a weak legal framework in combating this type of crime, or ineffective deterrence of potential criminals due to weak penalties for those convicted. There is no one profile of an ‘environmental criminal.’ Those involved may range from an opportunistic poacher, a middleman transporting illegal materials or wildlife across a border, to a large multinational company avoiding the costs of waste processing by dumping at sea. What is clear is that in some parts of the world the profits made in the illegal trade in endangered species, electronic-waste, hazardous chemicals, timber and fish continues to grow and has a detrimental effect on the stability of a nation and even a region. In fact in some cases environmental and natural resource crime can fuel violent conflicts, as reported in the United Nations Environment Programme’s report titled “From Conflict to Peacebuilding, The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment.”

Intelligence exchange and operations

The INTERPOL Wildlife Crime and Pollution Crime Working Groups help encourage the exchange of information between member countries and supports domestic law enforcement operations. When an investigation starts off locally in one country and expands into other countries it can often place an agency or an officer into unfamiliar territory and present complex international relations issues, In this instance INTERPOL acts as a single point of contact in multi-country or trans-national investigations, providing a range of essential police investigative assistance and support services. This includes access to police and law enforcement services worldwide, to an established environmental law enforcement network, and to an international networking forum which facilitates global intelligence exchange and support.

The types of investigations which constitute and justify international engagement naturally vary and are a matter for each law enforcement agency and officer to decide on the evidence and intelligence they have and whether their case may have an international dimension. But when there is trans-national engagement, INTERPOL will always encourage agencies to pursue their investigation even if it crosses jurisdictions and borders as this is the nature of the crime itself. Some of the most critical aspects of a successful international investigation are ensuring secure communication services to exchange data quickly and access to operational data services and databases that contain critical information on criminals and criminality. Provision of these services and maintaining links at local, national, regional, and international levels is one of the most important tactics in combating environmental crime and represents one of the INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme’s key activities against environmental crime – a crime which affects us all.


INTERPOL is the world’s largest international police organization, with 188 member countries. It works to facilitate cross-border law enforcement co-operation, and supports and assists all organizations, authorities and services whose mission it is to prevent or combat international crime. INTERPOL’s current activities are based around four core functions:

  • Secure global law enforcement communication services. INTERPOL runs a global law enforcement communications system called I-24/7, which provides law enforcement around the world with a common platform through which they can share crucial information about criminals and criminality.
  • Operational data service s and databases for law enforcement. INTERPOL’s databases and services ensure that law enforcement worldwide have access to the information and services they need to prevent and investigate crimes.
  • Operational law enforcement support services. INTERPOL supports law enforcement officials in the field with emergency support and operational activities, especially in its priority crime areas of fugitives, public safety and terrorism, drugs and organized crime, trafficking in human beings, financial and high-tech crime. A Command and Co-ordination Centre operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Law enforcement training and development. INTERPOL provides focused law enforcement training initiatives for national agencies, and also offers on-demand advice, guidance and support in building dedicated crime-fighting components. The aim is to enhance the capacity of member countries to effectively combat serious trans-national crime and terrorism.

Each of INTERPOL’s 188 member countries maintains a National Central Bureau (NCB) to facilitate contact between law enforcement agencies internationally. The NCB is the designated first point of contact between INTERPOL’s General Secretariat headquarters in Lyon, its regional offices and member countries requiring assistance with overseas investigations or issues of criminality.

*David Higgins is Manager of INTERPOL’s Environmental Crime Programme. (