Wildlife Justice Commission has warned of emerging illegal sand mining mafias, as the environmental crime escalates across the globe.

The development is due to sand being a key raw material in the concrete, asphalt and glass that build infrastructure and is the second most used resource worldwide after water.

The latest Wildlife Justice Commission’s report titled, ‘Convergence of wildlife crime with other forms of organised crime: A 2023 review’ indicates that an estimated 40-50 billion tonnes of sand resources are used globally each year, yet its extraction and management are poorly governed in many countries.

“Current extraction exceeds the replenishment rates of naturally occurring sand, and the intensifying demand for sand in a rapidly urbanising world is contributing to significant environmental, social, and economic impacts,” the report reads in part. The Commission highlighted that the main threats stem from extraction in areas where sand plays an active role, such as rivers and coastal or marine ecosystems.

“Sand mining in these environments can cause erosion threatening communities and livelihoods at both the point of extraction and further downstream in the affected system, as well as the salination of aquifers and groundwater reserves, loss of protection against storm surges, land-use changes, shrinking deltas, and threats to freshwater and marine fisheries and biodiversity.”

Despite, the Commission observing these threats, there are no global treaties governing sand extraction, its use or trade, or even to promote good practice.

“Escalating demand for sand has led to the formation of illegal sand mining operations in some areas, run by organised and often violent sand mafias,” the Commission warned.

Locally, the rivers adjacent to cities have not been immune and have been hit by commercial-scale unregulated sand mining for both construction and sprouting brickyards in most urban areas.

The main focus of the report indicates that wildlife trafficking has grown to become a more serious and profitable crime type during the past two decades.

The report cites that there is mounting evidence of the increased involvement of organised crime networks and cases where wildlife crime is committed in conjunction with other forms of serious and organised crime.

Wildlife crime is a cross-cutting criminal activity which cannot be tackled in isolation from other crimes. Crime convergence should be further studied and integrated as part of the approach to tackle wildlife crime and organised crime more broadly.

“An improved understanding of this intersection can help to identify more strategic policy and law enforcement responses to address it,” Olivia Swaak-Goldman, Executive Director of the Wildlife Justice Commission, said.

In the near future, Botswana will have a positive contribution to some of the wildlife crimes following the launch of Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Kasane.

The development comes after the US Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) awarded a $2.6 million grant to Virginia Tech and the Kasane-based NGO, Centre for African Resources: Animals, Communities and Land Use (CARACAL) to establish a new Wildlife Forensic Laboratory in Kasane.

The Wildlife Forensic Laboratory will collect, store, and analyse evidence to support wildlife trafficking cases, with interagency law enforcement support throughout Botswana.

INL plays an important role in the fight against the illicit trade of wildlife by building criminal justice sector capacity in partner nations along the entire supply chain.

Wildlife trafficking generates billions of dollars in illicit revenue each year, undermines security, threatens the rule of law, spreads diseases, and destabilises communities.

The centre is anticipated to help Botswana strengthen its forensic science capabilities to better investigate and prosecute wildlife crimes and serve as a centre of excellence in Southern Africa.

Virginia Tech is one of the leading land-grant universities in the United States and among the top six of universities in the US for research expenditures.