Despite the rhetoric, however, actions speak louder than words. Illicit wildlife trade is a significant problem for a number of reasons. It usually results in the harm or death of animals taken from the wild, as well as impacting on the sustainability of the species as a whole. Removal of wild flora and fauna impacts on biodiversity and can have a significant impact on important ecosystem services. Local populations may be deprived of their livelihood and natural resources, while legitimate and sustainable businesses are undermined. Imported specimens may carry diseases or become invasive. Revenues are also lost through the avoidance of duty payments.
Finally, there is a body of evidence suggesting that illegal wildlife trade is linked to other types of international serious and organised crime activity, including commodity smuggling (such as illegal drugs) and the financing of terrorist and militia groups in some of the world’s most unstable countries. Thus, this has now been defined as ‘serious crime’ at the international level.
The UK Government has demonstrated a commitment towards tackling trade in illegal wildlife. Supporting range states in their fight against wildlife crime is extremely important, but this needs to be done appropriately. The UK (and more broadly the EU) is both an important market and transit nation for the illegal trade in endangered species, yet very few wildlife offenders are ever caught and those who are tend to receive relatively lenient sentences in the UK courts (similarly elsewhere, though with some exceptions). On the other hand, illicit wildlife trade is big business and can result in huge profits.
For example, black market elephant ivory has been estimated as being worth £550 to £1,400 per kg and rhino horn can achieve between £13,000 and £62,500 per kg in different international markets. This means the rewards of offending far outweigh the risks, so there is currently little to deter potential offenders.
In order to redress this balance we need to detect and prosecute more offenders and introduce more appropriate sentencing. The first response requires the commitment of resources. This does not mean (just) throwing money at the problem. It means that illegal wildlife trade needs to be constructed more seriously within enforcement, prosecutorial and judicial bodies. More personnel (rather than the current handful of committed individuals) need to be dedicated to enforcement activities, including intelligence gathering and analysis, and agency-relevant training needs to be introduced or expanded for all three of these bodies. Systems for sharing information and good-practice also need to be supported. Academics can also play their part in the process, engaging with enforcement and conservation organisations to carry out research into the nature and extent of such problems, to support suitable responses.
Secondly, sentencing needs to be much more appropriate. While there are a number of different aims when sentencing offenders, deterrence is the key here. Court disposals need to be consistent (so that like crimes receive like sentences and these are graduated according to the severity of the crime and culpability of the offender).
Most importantly, they should also be commensurate with the harms of offending and the potential profits to be made. When determining this, the courts should take into account the variety of harms caused by trading in endangered species, as outlined above. If they were to do this, sentencing would look very different to how it does now.
In order to achieve more appropriate sentences, prosecutors and the judiciary need to have better training and be provided with relevant, accessible information. This also requires the involvement of scientific authorities and conservation organisations (via investigators and prosecutors) to help the courts understand the significant impacts of the specific crime committed. I also believe that more appropriate sentencing would be supported by the introduction of sentencing guidelines, which provide a framework for decision-making. These exist for many other crimes, but not for wildlife offences.
Finally, I would also like to see sentencing for wildlife offences include an appropriate reparative element, either in the form of costs to support repatriation or environmental repair, or in the manner of financial contributions to conservation organisations.
To achieve these aims requires both policy changes by the government and a commitment from those agencies involved. There is much sterling work already carried out by individual investigators and prosecutors, as well as by the National Wildlife Crime Unit and numerous charities and NGOs, but until illegal wildlife trade is truly taken seriously at the top level, I feel they continue to fight a losing battle.
This article was originally published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.