Rotten to the core: tackling the corruption at the heart of the illegal caviar trade

Posted on February, 13 2019

Joint TRAFFIC, WWF, U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre report examines how corruption facilitates the flow of illegal caviar and identifies potential solutions
With caviar trafficking driving endangered sturgeon and paddlefish species towards extinction, a collaborative study released today highlights the role of corruption in facilitating the illegal trade and recommends how corruption at the heart of wildlife crime across the globe can be addressed.

Produced by TRAFFIC, WWF, U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre (U4 ACRC), Northumbria and
Utrecht Universities, Corruption and wildlife crime: A focus on caviar trade examines how
corruption facilitates the flow of illegal caviar along the value chain, to identify possible
intervention strategies.

The study identifies a range of corrupt practices, ranging from bribery of border officials, poachers
painting marks on their fishing boats to show police officials they had paid bribes to avoid
inspection, the abuse of scientific fishing permits as a cover to legalise catch of wild sturgeon in
the Caspian Sea, and even “black washing” - the misdeclaration of legally farmed caviar as “wild-
sourced” because of the higher price that attracts. The authors describe the latter as “a unique
corrupt practice for wildlife crimes, and possibly unique to the caviar industry.”

“Effective elimination of corrupt practices is a pre-requisite to enable regulation of the caviar trade
in a sustainable manner, to protect sturgeon stocks from over-exploitation,” said Louisa Musing,
Research Officer-Europe, TRAFFIC.

Corruption is a severe threat to wildlife conservation globally: the study recommends adoption of
a “top-down and bottom-up approach” to address corruption within wildlife crime given the large
differences between commodity types. For example, smuggling caviar uses different mechanisms
to smuggling timber due to the scale of the commodity and different ways of shipping it.

Among the solutions put forward for dealing with corruption generally are considering social
norms and conducting social network analysis to understand how corrupt wildlife crime networks
operate in practice—if corruption has become normalized, individual behaviours will be shaped
towards corruption rather than away from it.

The study also recommends ongoing collaboration between anti-corruption and wildlife experts,
with a focus on sharing lessons from different environments; further research into the links
between legal and illegal actors to establish how corruption works in practice; following the
money; developing interventions to mitigate or reduce corruption taking place; and establishing
mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of interventions—and be prepared to adapt as events

“Changing attitudes through understanding and changing the social norms could be more effective
than an enforcement orientated approach and is key to addressing this most intractable yet critical
wildlife crime issue,” said Rob Parry-Jones, WWF Wildlife Crime Initiative Lead.
However, the study notes the lack of knowledge about what actions are effective in dealing with
corruption, which undermines the effectiveness of conservation programmes, reducing law
enforcement and political support, establishing incentives for the over-exploitation of resources,
undermining the effectiveness and legitimacy of legislation and acting as an indicator of organised

“Future research in this area should adopt social network or political ecology-type analysis to
further investigate patterns of corrupt behaviours in caviar trade across contexts. We can then
help improve techniques aimed at disrupting or shutting down the illegal trade, by minimizing
corruption’s role in undermining law enforcement and customs controls,” said Aled Williams,
Senior Program Advisor, U4 ACRC.
Russian sturgeon, Black Sea, Tendra, Ukraine
© Andrey Nekrasov / WWF
Caviar confiscated by customs officers at Heathrow Airport.
© Edward Parker / WWF
Two sturgeons caught by illegal fisherman
© Evgeniy Polonskiy