Combating Wildlife Trafficking:

Opportunities Exist to Improve the Use of Financial Rewards

GAO-18-279: Published: Apr 23, 2018. Publicly Released: May 8, 2018.

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fennella@gao.gov

 

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Wildlife trafficking is a multibillion-dollar, global criminal activity that imperils thousands of species. To help combat it, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can offer rewards in certain circumstances for information on wildlife trafficking activities.

We found that these agencies have not prioritized offering rewards, and they have paid few of them—27 rewards in 11 fiscal years, totaling about $205,000.

We made seven recommendations to these agencies, including telling the public about the possibility of rewards and reviewing how effectively the agencies are using rewards.

Recovered: A trafficked Asian leaf turtle with taped legs

A photo of a turtle with its legs taped to its body.

A photo of a turtle with its legs taped to its body.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Anne-Marie Fennell
(202) 512-3841
fennella@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Multiple laws—such as the Endangered Species Act and Lacey Act—authorize the Departments of the Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to pay rewards for information on wildlife trafficking. FWS and NOAA reported paying few rewards from fiscal years 2007 through 2017. Specifically, the agencies collectively reported paying 27 rewards, totaling $205,500. Agency officials said that the information was complete to the best of their knowledge but could not sufficiently assure that this information represented all of their reward payments.

Turtle Taped for Transport (Left) and Other Illegally Trafficked Turtles (Right) Recovered Based on Information from a Source Who Then Received a Reward from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Turtle Taped for Transport (Left) and Other Illegally Trafficked Turtles (Right) Recovered Based on Information from a Source Who Then Received a Reward from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

FWS and NOAA have reward policies that outline the general process for preparing reward proposals, but FWS's policy does not specify factors for its agents to consider when developing proposed reward amounts. Some FWS agents GAO interviewed said that in developing proposals, they did not know whether their proposed reward amounts were enough, too little, or too much. By augmenting its policy to specify factors for agents to consider, FWS can better ensure that its agents have the necessary quality information to prepare proposed reward amounts, consistent with federal internal control standards.

FWS and NOAA communicate little information to the public on rewards. For example, most agency websites did not indicate that providing information on wildlife trafficking could qualify for a reward. This is inconsistent with federal standards that call for management to communicate quality information so that external parties can help achieve agency objectives. FWS and NOAA officials said they have not communicated general reward information because of workload concerns, but they said it may be reasonable to provide more information in some instances. By developing plans to communicate more reward information to the public, the agencies can improve their chances of obtaining information on wildlife trafficking that they otherwise might not receive.

FWS and NOAA have not reviewed the effectiveness of their use of rewards. The agencies have not done so because using rewards has generally not been a priority. FWS and NOAA officials agreed that such a review would be worthwhile but provided no plans for doing so. By reviewing the effectiveness of their use of rewards, FWS and NOAA can identify opportunities to improve the usefulness of rewards as a tool for combating wildlife trafficking.

Why GAO Did This Study

Wildlife trafficking—the poaching and illegal trade of plants, fish, and wildlife—is a multibillion-dollar, global criminal activity that imperils thousands of species. FWS and NOAA enforce laws prohibiting wildlife trafficking that authorize the agencies to pay financial rewards for information about such illegal activities.

GAO was asked to review FWS's and NOAA's use of financial rewards to combat wildlife trafficking. This report examines (1) laws that authorize FWS and NOAA to pay rewards for information on wildlife trafficking and the extent to which the agencies paid such rewards from fiscal years 2007 through 2017, (2) the agencies' reward policies, (3) information available to the public on rewards, and (4) the extent to which the agencies reviewed the effectiveness of their use of rewards.

GAO reviewed laws, examined FWS and NOAA policies and public communications on rewards, analyzed agency reward data for fiscal years 2007 through 2017 and assessed their reliability, interviewed FWS and NOAA officials, and compared agency policies and public communications on rewards to federal internal control standards.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that FWS and NOAA track reward information, FWS augment its reward policy to specify factors for agents to consider when developing proposed reward amounts, FWS and NOAA develop plans to communicate more reward information to the public, and FWS and NOAA review the effectiveness of their reward use. Both agencies concurred with these recommendations.

For more information, contact Anne-Marie Fennell at (202) 512-3841 or fennella@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Director of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement should track financial reward information so that it is clearly documented and readily available for examination. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement should track financial reward information so that it is clearly documented and readily available for examination. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Director of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement should augment FWS's financial reward policy to specify factors law enforcement agents are to consider when developing proposed reward amounts. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Director of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement should determine the types of additional information to communicate to the public on financial rewards and then develop and implement a plan for communicating that information. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement should determine the types of additional information to communicate to the public on financial rewards and then develop and implement a plan for communicating that information. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Director of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement should review the effectiveness of the agency's use of financial rewards and implement any changes that the agency determines would improve the usefulness of financial rewards as a law enforcement tool. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: United States Fish and Wildlife Service

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Director of the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement should review the effectiveness of the agency's use of financial rewards and implement any changes that the agency determines would improve the usefulness of financial rewards as a law enforcement tool. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

 

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