UK Government fails to take wildlife crime seriously

| 24th April 2013

Simon Pope (front left) and Wildlife Officers from London Boroughs around a polar bear skin seized in London by the WCU.

Simon Pope, Director of Campaigns and Communications for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, questions why the UK government is so far behind other global powers when it comes to tackling the illegal wildlife trade.
In the UK, specialist wildlife police are at risk of becoming an endangered species themselves

It is a pivotal time in the global fight against the illegal wildlife trade. Rhino poaching is at a record high, there is a seemingly unquenchable thirst for ivory in the East and there has been a bloody battle at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) to take shark fin soup off the menu. 

The signs are clear: this is not some niche, illicit trade carried out by petty part-time villains. It’s a major source of revenue for a global network of hardened criminals – gangs, drug lords, terrorists all growing rich from the trafficking of wildlife, none about to have a crisis of conscience and stop what they are doing.

To them, a rhino horn is simply a commodity. An endangered parrot is an expensive trophy pet. A shahtoosh shawl is a must-have fashion accessory. None of these can be considered essentials, but they all have a price and for that price those animals suffer being tracked down, sought out, butchered and then traded.   

But what is the financial cost? The wildlife trade body, TRAFFIC quotes a study from 2011 which suggests that the illegal wildlife trade stands at US $7.8-10 billion per year. A 2008 report for the US Congress suggested it might be as high as $20 billion.   

When we look deeper at those who are operating this global trade, we find links to serious and organised crime such as drug cartels and even terrorism.   

It’s these links which are increasingly causing the world’s leading global powers, including the US State Department and the UN, to sit up and take notice. Both have recently publicly recognised the importance of tackling wildlife trafficking, with the US pledging to make it a priority.

And this month, the UK Government published its long anticipated response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s Report on Wildlife Crime. The lack of fanfare surrounding its publication should give a clue to its content. 

Last year, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and our partners in the London Metropolitan Police Service’s Wildlife Crime Unit gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee’s Inquiry. Our key recommendations, shared by the Committee, focused on championing the long term stable funding of enforcement in the UK, the issuing of Home Office sentencing guidance for wildlife crime, and the better recording of wildlife crime by enforcement officers. 

In the UK, specialist wildlife police are at risk of becoming an endangered species themselves

The government has failed to fully address any of these crucial areas and its casual attitude to wildlife crime not only risks giving the green light to wildlife criminals, but is completely at odds to what other leading global powers are saying. As the Chair of the Committee, Joan Walley MP said: “The government has missed an opportunity to take two simple measures to protect important wildlife threatened by poachers and criminals in the UK.”

While the UK Government is willing to invest in overseas enforcement bodies, it is simultaneously failing to provide long term, sustainable funding to the specialist police bodies dedicated to fighting wildlife crime in the UK.

The government claims to be concerned about animals being driven to the brink of extinction by the illegal wildlife trade, including launching its own ‘If they’re Gone’ campaign, but has lost sight of the fact that our specialist wildlife police are at risk of becoming an endangered species themselves.

Our government is failing to take wildlife crime seriously and it’s frustrating. Green London Assembly Member Jenny Jones is just one of the politicians who agrees, citing the importance of protecting the specialist wildlife police in her patch. She said:  

"London is a centre for criminals who abuse and traffic wildlife, which is why it's very important that the Met should take this issue seriously. I have been working for years to keep the funding going for the Met's Wildlife Crime Unit because they do an essential job in protecting wildlife and preventing the illegal trade of endangered animals. 

“This unit needs long term sustainable funding so that it can concentrate on stopping such crimes, rather than spend time each year worrying it may be disbanded because of a lack of funding."

Now consider this on a national and international scale – the enforcement teams need meaningful funding and support from UK Government and they need it now.

Without long term stable funding for our specialist enforcement agencies, the UK isn’t fully committed to tackling wildlife crime and its perpetrators. How can an effective policing strategy be developed when these agencies don’t know from year to year if they will still exist?

Our wildlife police are up against flourishing networks of serious, organised criminals. If our enforcement teams are going to stand a chance against them, they need meaningful funding and support from the government. They also need the reassurance that criminals engaging in wildlife crime will face tough penalties that act as a real deterrent to participating in this hugely lucrative trade.

Wildlife crime is not some occasional, peripheral activity that can be dealt with by a light touch. That is just what the criminal wants – for as long as the enforcement of their illegal activities is under-resourced and under-prioritised, there will be wildlife at risk of exploitation, cruelty and even extinction. 

We need our decision makers to send a clear message to wildlife criminals: Britain is closed for business.

Simon Pope is Director of Campaigns and Communications at WSPA UK.