In the cartels run by just one or a few individuals, vacuums left by arrests are quickly filled.
That is why these convictions, even high-profile ones like Mr. Lemtongthai’s, usually have little effect on shutting down illegal trade — in wildlife, drugs or any other kind of contraband, Dr. Felbab-Brown pointed out.
Three recent arrests for illegal wildlife trafficking have received wide attention among conservationists: Feisal Mohamed Ali, charged with trafficking in ivory in Kenya; Abdurahman Mohammed Sheikh, another alleged ivory trafficker in Kenya; and Yang Fenglan, Tanzania’s so-called queen of ivory. All have denied the charges and await trial.
But even if they were all eventually found guilty, Dr. Wittig noted, their trade would account only for a meager 10.9 tons of ivory over the past decade, or the equivalent of 1,500 elephants. By Dr. Wittig’s estimate, the total amount they may have trafficked accounted for just 10 percent of African ivory smuggled over that period. Nor has poaching declined since those individuals were arrested.
“Arresting a few alleged wildlife-trafficking ‘kingpins’ may be a useful symbolic tool for promoting the importance and feasibility of strong enforcement to the general public,” Dr. Wittig said. But “it is not likely to be effective in actually saving protected wildlife, especially if done in isolation.”
Changing this largely depends on changing the way the world addresses illegal wildlife trade.
John Sellar, formerly chief of enforcement for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has argued that we should instead just think of wildlife trafficking more simply as a crime, not a conservation issue.
But most of those tasked with fighting this type of crime are conservationists, rangers and wildlife managers. Mr. Sellar and other experts argue this job should instead be assigned to police, detectives, money-laundering experts and the courts.