Written by: Adam Cruise
“A child born today will see the last wild elephants and rhinos die before their 25th birthdays.”
This was the statement made this week by Karmenu Vella, the European Union Commissioner for Environment, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs. “Wildlife trafficking is a major threat to our sustainable future, and we need to fight it on several fronts,” he said.
The last decade has seen a dramatic surge in wildlife trafficking. More than 20,000 elephants and over 1,200 rhinoceroses were killed in Africa in 2015 alone. Ivory, rhino horn, tiger products, tropical timber and exotic birds are among the most valuable wildlife products found on the black market, but many other species are also concerned, including reptiles, seahorses and pangolins. It is estimated that 1,000 rangers have been killed during anti-poaching operations in the last ten years around the world.
Between US$8 to 20 billion passes annually through the hands of organised criminal groups, ranking alongside the trafficking of drugs, people and arms.
The key factor for the increased level and sophistication in those criminal activities is increasing demand for wildlife products, notably in Asia, which has driven up prices steeply. Other factors include poverty, corruption, a lack of resources for enforcement at source countries in Africa, and low sanction levels due to lack of awareness.
But it’s not just Africa or Asia who are reeling from wildlife crime. The European Union is also a major destination, source and transit region for trafficking in endangered species, which involves live and dead specimens of wild fauna and flora, or parts of products made from them.
The trafficking of live reptiles, for example, is highest in the EU than anywhere else in the world.
Why are existing measures not working?
Even though the EU has strict rules for trading endangered species, known as the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations, which requires all 28 Member States to ensure that illegal wildlife trade is considered a criminal offence in their national law, there are great differences in the level of implementation and enforcement of these instruments amongst the different Member States, especially among central and eastern European countries.
In 2013-14 only 11 EU countries imposed prison sentences on wildlife criminals. Werner Gowitzke, an environmental crime officer for Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, told The Guardian: “The fact is that different penalties in different member states can create a bias for organised crime groups to base their activities in one country or another.”
Within the EU and around the world weak and ineffective governance has created conditions that allow the illegal trade in wildlife to flourish. Organised criminal groups are often able to circumvent law enforcement officials through sophisticated fraud or bribery, and frequently launder the illegal proceeds of the trade in wildlife products.
By their own admission the EU as well as the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement at the intersection between trade, the environment and development, are aware that more can be done to ensure better coordination and a more strategic approach for action by the Member States.
What is being done?
At a conference in The Hague this week, key stakeholders, including The CITES Secretary General, John Scanlon, Ministers from the EU and beyond, private sector leaders, charities and NGOs such as African Parks and the Black Mambas, an all-women anti-poaching unit from South Africa, will focus on exploring new, concrete solutions to tackle wildlife crime.
Building upon previous conferences held in London and Kasane, the objective is to identify the key problems in combatting wildlife. The main objective of the conference is the adoption of an anti-wildlife crime Action Plan within and beyond the European Union, which comprises 32 measures to be carried out between now and 2020.
One measure to be adopted immediately for all EU countries is to regard wildlife trafficking as a grave and serious crime. This means convicted poachers, smugglers and illegal trophy hunters will now face prison sentences of at least four years. And it appears the wheels have already begun in motion. Yesterday, four Irishmen, linked to the infamous Rathkeale Rovers gang, were convicted in the UK for stealing rhino horns and other artefacts from museums across Britain to export to China. Thirteen members of the gang have been arrested by Europol since their illicit operations began in 2012. Sentencing for all those convicted will take place in April.
Another measure will be the preparation of guidelines by the European Commission to suspend the export of antique or old ivory items from the EU as well as a ban on hunting trophies. The measure is to be adopted by the end of this year.
The EU further aims at increasing cooperation between competent enforcement agencies such as Europol and Interpol as well as provide strategic EU financial support to tackle trafficking in source countries, help build capacity for enforcement and provide long term sources of income to rural communities living in wildlife-rich areas. A figure of 160 million euros has been earmarked for such projects. The Action Plan will be presented to the EU Member States for endorsement in the coming weeks.
There is also a global collective effort just beginning to get underway. In July 2015, the importance of treating certain illicit wildlife trafficking as a serious crime was recognised by the UN General Assembly along with the need to combat corruption.
Speaking at keynote address at the The Hague Conference, which timeously ends on the UN World Wildlife day on 3rd March, CITES Secretary General John Scanlon said: “The UN General Assembly, CITES Parties and others have recognised the need to ‘mainstream’ the response to wildlife crime in calling for all States to consider becoming parties to the UN Conventions against Corruption and Transnational Organised Crime.”
“We are continuing to face a serious and immediate threat to wildlife through illicit trafficking,” said Scanlon. “We are quite literally getting down to the wire with a number of truly extraordinary species and if we do not act immediately they will be lost on our watch.”
The conference aims to generate ideas and support for September’s 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, where the 182 countries, stakeholders and the world’s media will all gather in Johannesburg, South Africa in a global effort to build momentum in tackling wildlife crime.