Getting tough on wildlife crime

Lori Frater | 8 years ago

Over the past five years wildlife crime has doubled into a global trade worth $19 billion, making it the fourth largest illegal activity in the world (UNEP). Driven by rising demands for ivory, it is now no longer only a conservation, but also a security issue, threatening political and economic stability in central Africa.

Wildlife crime, including poaching, illegal harvesting, transitioning of illegal wildlife products and derivatives, as well as illegal commerce and use of those products, has become a serious trans-nationally organised criminal business. The welfare of animals is sidelined, which ultimately impacts on the conservation of the species concerned, putting whole ecosystems at risk. Low levels of awareness, low risk of detection and low levels of sanctions make it particularly attractive for international organised crime networks.

It is estimated that more than 1000 rhinoceroseswere poached in South Africa in 2013, compared to 13 in 2007 and rhino horn is now more valuable than gold. Whilst, wildlife crime is highly lucrative, there are rarely any prosecutions. The consequences are wider than conservational, as wildlife trafficking can deprive many of the world’s most marginalised people, including indigenous communities, of important opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. It can fuel regional instability, for example in Central Africa some militia groups reportedly use revenues from wildlife trafficking to fund their activities. (COM (2014) 64 Communication on the EU Approach against Wildlife Trafficking)

In response to the escalation of wildlife crime, the UN Commission on Crime, Prevention and Criminal Justice produced a resolution (endorsed by the UN Economic and Social Council in July 2013), encouraging UN member states to make illicit trafficking in wild fauna and flora a serious crime when organised criminal groups are involved.  Such a move placed wildlife crime on the same level as human trafficking and drug trafficking.

The adoption of the resolution was seen as an important step in a process to ensure the full force of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime can be applied to effectively tackle transnational organized wildlife and forest crime.

This year, the EU Parliament overwhelmingly (647 to 14 votes) passed a resolution calling on Member States and the EU Commission to:

  • Establish an EU plan of action against wildlife crime and trafficking with clear deliverables and timelines;
  • Call on Member States to introduce moratoria on all commercial imports, exports and domestic sales and purchases of tusks and raw and worked ivory products until wild elephant populations are no longer threatened by poaching;
  • Call for the destruction of ivory stockpiles by EU member states;
  • Increase the rate of prosecution and punishments for those involved in wildlife trafficking, this should include better training for police officers as well as the appointment of specialised wildlife crime prosecutors and by means of enhanced awareness, capacity and resources ensuring that wildlife criminals receive penalties which are commensurate with the seriousness of the crime;
  • To harmonise the different penalties across Member States and to ensure that illicit trafficking of wild fauna and flora with the involvement of organised criminal groups, is defined as a criminal offence punishable by up to four years in prison or more;
  • Establish a Wildlife Crime Unit within Europol;
  • Fully implement the recommendations in ‘Project WEB’ a joint Interpol/IFAW initiative to combat online wildlife trafficking;
  • Implement an EU ban on ivory sales;
  • Call on the Commission, through its work with African and Asian range states, to help those countries strengthen their policies and legal frameworks, increase law enforcement capacity, develop effective judicial systems and reinforce mechanisms to tackle corruption in order to better combat wildlife crime at local, national and regional levels

The resolution also urged the Commission and Council to include the fight against wildlife crime as a priority for development aid.

So why is wildlife trafficking a concern for the EU? Wildlife trafficking is one of the most serious threats to biodiversity. The survival of a number of species in the wild is directly jeopardised by poaching and the associated illegal trade. Trafficking also undermines many key goals in EU foreign policy and development support, including sustainable development, the rule of law, good governance and peace and stability.

The European Union is a significant market and a transit route for illegal trade in rhinoceros horn, ivory, and other animals and plants threatened by extinction. Because trade in the products of wildlife crime is global, and demand for them is growing in Southeast Asia, the Parliament urged the Commission to raise the issue in talks with the EU’s international partners and make it a priority when shaping EU aid policy.

However this is a non-binding vote and merely reflects the Parliaments wishes. One potential weakness in the resolution, as identified by theIUCN’s comment on the resolution, is that in order to ensure a well-balanced position on this subject, EU institutions have to acknowledge the role that well-managed, sustainable use and trade can play in promoting effective wildlife conservation and species recovery and as such it fails to adequately consider the importance of engaging local communities as active partners in conservation, and the need to take into account their interests while ensuring efforts to combat wildlife crime.

The EU Commission followed up on theresolution in February 2014 by consulting on how the EU can fight against dramatic increase in wildlife trafficking (closed April 2014).  The Commission sought views on issues related to wildlife trafficking, including the adequacy of the current framework, tools that might strengthen existing efforts to fight the problem, improvements in knowledge and data as well as the possibility of stronger sanctions.

The consultation concentrated on the most enigmatic land mammals and whilst this may highlight the issue of wildlife trade, it also means that many other species, which may be severely threatened by trade, are not given the attention that they require to prevent their decline and potential extinction including a number of species of birds, reptiles, plants and a number of marine mammals. The consultation also did not adequately address that poverty may be one of the drivers of illegal trade.

Some of the key issues with the current system is that it is too fragmented and EU policy on illegal wildlife trafficking currently emphasises law enforcement and negative sanctions for non-compliance but it could recognise the role played by well-regulated legal markets in both law enforcement and biodiversity conservation across a range of species. There are also potential developments to be gained in the use of focused sanctions on non-compliant states as well as on financial institutions channelling funds from organised crime. If illegal wildlife trade is placed on the same level as combating drugs and human trafficking, then wildlife trafficking should be part of the same process with approaches and methodologies determined by enforcement agencies, making illegal wildlife a part of the mandate of existing enforcement officers’ agencies with the appropriate training.

Based on the results of the consultation and the outcome of the expert conference held in April 2014, it is expected that the European Commission will propose to the next Environment Commissioner to review the existing policies and measures relating to wildlife trafficking within the EU to enable Member States to react more effectively to the current wildlife crime crisis.

Key Facts

  • In 2012 poachers killed approximately 22,000 elephants;
  • Since 2010, about 2500 rhinoceros have been poached in South Africa, which accounts for 80% of the whole population of African rhinoceroses;
  • The world’s tiger population has decreased from 100 000 a century ago to less than 3500 today;
  • It is estimated that illegal logging accounts for up to 30% of the global timber trade and contributes to more of 50% of tropical deforestation in Central Africa, the Amazon and South East Asia.

About the author

Lori Frater

Lori is a lawyer, consultant and researcher with experience of advising international and national institutions, governments and companies on all aspects of national and international environmental law, including climate change and sustainability development. She has experience of policy development and legislative drafting. At present she specialises in legislative reform in particular on the ecosystem approach, nature based solutions to climate change as well as ecosystem services and natural resource management.