Literally Pushing a Cautionary Wildlife Tale in European Parliament
When I first joined the International Fund for Animal Welfare I prepared myself for the extraordinary – after all IFAW is an organisation which runs conservation projects in every corner of the world and campaigns both locally and globally to protect our most threatened species – it stands to reason that your daily work would involve a certain degree of the unexpected.
However, never in my wildest dreams did I picture myself pushing a stuffed leopard through the corridors of the European Parliament, but that is just what I found myself doing recently.
You may wonder what I was doing with such a creature; after all IFAW is against wildlife souvenirs of this sort. Well, that was exactly the point. With the holiday season fast approaching and millions of people going abroad, IFAW is encouraging travellers to Think Twice about the source of the souvenirs they are bringing back with them. And we’re starting with members of the European Parliament.
We decided to hold this event in the European Parliament as it provided IFAW with an ideal platform to convey the Think Twice message to a highly select and influential audience of MEPs, officials, visitors and media. As we saw from the reaction of those who came, there is a great need for education.
At a time when our planet is facing the greatest loss of biodiversity ever, we must all be ever more vigilant to act where we can to save species on the brink of extinction. Every day up to 150 species are becoming extinct. One of the major causes is trade and consumption of animals - and the demand is driven in large part by travellers buying souvenirs.
This is why we were pleased to work with Bas Eickhout MEP and the Belgium Customs Authority to launch this years’ Think Twice campaign in Europe. As well as the stuffed leopard, the Belgian Customs Authorities were kind enough to loan us an arresting array of items including Shatoosh shawls, leopard skins, ivory and turtle shells, not to mention an elephant foot which had been made into a stool. Each of these items had been confiscated by the Belgian Authorities and the breadth of the items highlighted the scale of the problem we face.
The European Union tops the list of major importers by value for many wild animal and plant products, including tropical timber, caviar, reptile skins and live reptiles. There is a clear and present role for the EU and European Member States to strictly regulate legal wildlife trade and clamp down on the illegal trade. In countries where these animals are at risk, the EU must also promote measures which can protect these species through its foreign, development and environment policy.
Among the tools available to the EU are investment in anti-poaching and enforcement training. The EU is already helping somewhat in this field. IFAW too is providing funding for training of anti-poaching and enforcement teams.
However, the EU must do more to support these efforts.
And the EU must also be consistent in its approach. That is why at international meetings such as CITES, where the future of these species are debated, the EU must take a precautionary approach.
If we look at the example of elephants and ivory, which are among the most popular souvenir items, then we can see directly the influence the EU can have. Recent legal stockpile sales, supported in part by the EU, fuelled the illegal trade and subsequently the poaching of elephants. We must never forget: every piece of ivory represents a dead elephant.
The EU must also do more in its own back yard to educate its citizens about the harm created by the purchasing of wildlife souvenirs.
That is why IFAW has constructed a new exhibition at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The illegal trade in wildlife products is an organised crime worth billions of dollars, ranking just behind the trade in arms and drugs. But whereas enormous resources and heavy sanctions are applied to those who trade illegally in arms and drugs, the illegal trade in wildlife is little policed, has ineffective sanctions and is becoming an increasingly lucrative and comparatively safe option for organised crime. It has even become a source of income fueling the warlords of the failed state of Somalia and financing Janjaweed terrorists in Darfur.
Most tourists don’t realise they are participating in this illegal business because the wildlife trinkets are openly being sold in markets, in posh shops or even at the airport. All international trade in these species or any products made of them is illegal. If you enter your home country with such an item in your suitcase you are facing criminal charges. It is our hope that this exhibit together with the others IFAW are hosting at Schiphol and Berlin Airports will go some way to help end this trade.
So I say to all those reading this article, when you go on your well deserved holidays this year, keep these words in your mind: “If we don’t buy, they don’t die”.
For more information on the International Fund for Animal Welfare effort to save animals in crisis around the world, visit http://www.ifaw.org