Fighting wildlife trafficking must be made a priority

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Rhino horn is one illegal commodity that is, unfortunately, still traded in Europe on the black market. [Ted/ Flickr]

The recent killing of a rhino in a French zoo brought the harsh realities of wildlife crime to our doorstep, yet the EU already lies at the heart of the illegal wildlife trade. Joanna Swabe, Eleonora Panella and Daniel Turner argue that tackling wildlife trafficking must be made a priority issue.

Dr Joanna Swabe is executive director for Humane Society International/Europe; Daniel Turner is associate director for Born Free Foundation; and Eleonora Panella is wildlife campaigner for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

The recent brutal slaying of Vince, a four-year old southern white rhino, at the Thoiry Zoo, 60km from Paris, was met with great shock and incredulity. How was it possible that such a magnificent animal – kept within the apparently secure confines of captivity – could be slaughtered and have his horn hacked off here in the heart of Europe?

The sad answer lies in the fact that a kilo of rhino horn can be sold for large sums on the black market in some Asian countries. Vince had a price on his head. There are only about 20,000 southern white rhinos still living in Africa today. With poachers already devastating wild populations and rhino horns being stolen from museums, it was perhaps only a matter of time before such a ruthless attack was carried out at a zoo on European soil.

This atrocity has brought the realities of wildlife trafficking very much to our own doorstep, yet it would be naïve to assume that the EU is not immune to this form of organised crime. Indeed, the EU is widely considered to be the third largest destination for illegal wildlife and wildlife products.

The EU is used as both a market and a transit route for the illegal wildlife trade, but it is also a source market for certain species, such as the glass eel. For example, according to the Elephant Trade Information System, Europe accounts for around a third of all ivory seizures worldwide, with Belgium, France, Portugal and the United Kingdom acting as key transit routes.

Globally speaking, wildlife crime has been surging in the past decade, growing at two to three times the pace of the global economy, according to a 2016 UNEP-INTERPOL rapid response assessment.

The increasing scale of wildlife trafficking is intrinsically linked to the growing involvement of transnational organised crime networks as reported by UNODC and EUROPOL. Wildlife trafficking is seen as a low-risk and highly profitable activity, which makes it highly attractive to these networks, especially those with smuggling capabilities.

A key reason for this is that many law enforcement agencies still treat wildlife trafficking as a low priority and it carries weak penalties.

In response to the surging poaching crisis, illegal trade of animal and wildlife products and its devastating effects for biodiversity, the European Commission adopted the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking in February 2016; this was adopted by member states last June.

As NGOs, we warmly welcomed this plan, but also offered further recommendations to strengthen associated provisions to tackle wildlife crime. The Action Plan called for an assessment of the threat posed by wildlife trafficking within SOCTA (Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessments), based on data and, where possible, national threat assessments provided by member states.

The Plan also called for member states to ensure that organised wildlife trafficking constitutes a serious crime throughout the EU, in line with international commitments and that the effectiveness of the European Environment Crime Directive is reviewed, including its criminal sanctions.

Europol has thus far supported several actions and operations to tackle wildlife and environmental crime by providing analytical and operational support and publishing strategic documents. It has identified environmental crime (including wildlife trafficking) as an emerging crime in the EU and describes trafficking in endangered species as ‘a niche market’ attracting highly specialised Organised Criminal Groups.

According to Europol’s 2013 SOCTA, the nature and complexity of serious and organised crime is an ever-changing phenomenon and a degree of financial, personnel and political commitment is required to tackle these illicit activities effectively.

In 2015, for the first time, Europol coordinated member state participation in an international anti wildlife-trafficking operation, codenamed COBRA III. European seizures included five rhino horns, 11,439 living and dead specimens, almost 2,000 parts and products and over six tonnes of timber, plants and animal parts.

But the number of cases in which member states have requested support from Europol remains low (on average less than 10 per year) and there is no dedicated focal point at Europol working on the issue.

Illegal wildlife trade must be treated as a priority issue for the EU. Member states should treat wildlife trafficking as a serious crime as identified under the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

The 2017 SOCTA report, which was released on 9 March, will be finalised soon. Disappointingly, wildlife crime is not included as one of the five major threats, despite being mentioned in the report. We urge that the SOCTA should prioritise wildlife and environmental crime.

Wildlife trade policy and enforcement experts from around the world – and also two recent reports on wildlife trade adopted by the European Parliament – agree that more resources are desperately needed to fully understand and ultimately combat the illegal trade in wildlife.

The EU should utilise the strategies and agencies already in place to respond to other forms of serious organised crimes to enhance the identification, enforcement and prosecution of wildlife and environmental crime cases.

Dedicated funding for a Wildlife Crime Unit at Europol is sorely needed to coordinate the activities of member state authorities. Both financial and human resources are vital to ensuring that all the actions in the EU Action Plan Against Wildlife Trafficking are properly implemented.

For Vince’s sake – and for the sake of all wildlife targeted anywhere in the world by those seeking to profit from poaching and trafficking – we need to start treating wildlife trafficking as seriously as other organised activities.