UK Parliament helping to ramp up wildlife crime enforcement
The recent slaughter of hundreds of elephants in Cameroon for their ivory and the tragic death of some of those out there trying to protect them really brings the true cost of the illegal ivory trade home.
My colleagues from the International Fund for Animal Welfare were on the ground in Cameroon sending us distressing updates that included descriptions of how some of the elephants had their tusks cut off while they were still alive.
The horror of those first-hand reports was fresh in my mind when I recently went to give evidence to a parliamentary committee that is carrying out a review of the enforcement of wildlife crime in the UK.
The last enquiry by this committee took place in 2004 and despite some major improvements in this area, including the formation of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (a specialist policing unit working to tackle illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products) there is still more that needs to be done.
During the session, I, alongside colleagues from the Environmental Investigation Agency, The World Society for the Protection of Animals and TRAFFIC, was able to tell the politicians about the enormous scale of the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products, a trade estimated to be worth $10 billion (£6.3 billion) a year.
There is evidence that wildlife crime doesn’t just hurt animals, but humans as well.
INTERPOL and the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have highlighted the links between wildlife crime and wider organised crime. In some cases there is evidence that money made from trafficking wildlife products is being used to fund militia and terrorist activities.
These numbers can sound like an overwhelming abstraction, however, I was able to make it clear to the committee what this trade means to dwindling native populations of tigers, elephants and rhinos.
There were about 100,000 tigers in the wild at the beginning of the 20th century and now there are only as few as 3,000 left. Meanwhile, more than 800 rhinos were killed in South Africa in the last three years alone and the Western Black rhino has recently been declared extinct.
2011 was the worst year on record for large ivory seizures while elephant populations in some Central and Western African nations are being decimated by poaching.
Although the magnitude of the killing can seem overwhelming, it is important to remember that the UK can play a key role in stamping out wildlife trade. Britain has an enforcement structure in place that it can be proud of but it is essential that this is protected and strengthened.
Small changes can have a big impact such as providing judges with sentencing guidelines so when they preside over wildlife crime cases they ensure the penalties are severe enough to act as a deterrent.
Disappointingly too many offenders are getting off with comparatively trivial fines right now and this means they see this crime as low risk and high profit. The National Wildlife Crime Unit and our network or Wildlife Crime Officers across the country are often the unsung heroes going over and above what is expected of them because of their passion to protect wildlife.
They need to be supported within their forces and recognised for their hard work. The National Wildlife Crime Unit only has funding up until March 2013 and this needs to be extended so they can continue to be a global leader in the fight against wildlife crime.
IFAW works to tackle the growing threat posed by the Internet, the world’s biggest shop window, as it provides a new platform for illegal wildlife sales. We are also raising awareness that consumer demand drives this trade through our Think Twice campaign, with displays in key airports around the world. Internationally, IFAW supports INTERPOL operations that target the illegal trade in ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts.
I am very pleased to say that the UK is leading the way on tackling the trade on the Internet as well as taking part in and funding some of INTERPOL’s international enforcement work. I am hopeful that the Environmental Audit Committee will encourage the Government to maintain its commitments in these areas while pushing it to take the battle against wildlife crime to the next level.