Yesterday morning (3rd March 2020) I joined a small gathering of Lords, wildlife campaigners, press and change-makers in Westminster’s House of Lords to view a presentation on a long-awaited and much-needed initiative to End Wildlife Crime.
Aimed at transforming the effectiveness of the global response to transnational, organised wildlife crime (in layman’s terms: industrial-scale smuggling and the mass illegal trade of wild animals and plants); the initiative called for an international agreement — the first of its kind — to put an end to illegal wildlife trade.
Working together to end wildlife crime
International experts came together on United Nations’ World Wildlife Day 2020 to state that unified global action is critical if we are to stop the decline of ecosystems, reverse the extinction crisis facing wild animals and plants, and eliminate threats to human health.
The proposed international agreement will take the form of a new protocol under the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNCTOC), which specifically covers wildlife crime.
John Scanlon AO, who has formerly held the position as Secretary-General of CITES for eight years, explained to the room: “1 million species are a risk of extinction in the immediate decades.”
“According to the WWF 2018 Living Planet Report, over the last 40 years we’ve seen a 60% decline in biodiversity. All the interventions since the 1970s did not interrupt the decline; it is clear that transformational change is needed.”
While wildlife crime indeed takes place at a local level (in theory; managed locally); the focus of this initiative is the organised industrial level — the level at which Scanlon describes as speaking the language of ‘risk vs. profit’ and certainly not likely to be affected by the emotionally evocative images that adorn the Committee Room we stand in (supplied by Photographer’s Against Wildlife Crime; and serving a stark reminder of why we’re all here).
Illegal fishing, logging, poaching and the illegal trade in animals, plants and their derivatives are direct drivers of biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems — they are also fuelled by corruption and facilitated by inadequate laws and law enforcement.
“These are criminals who can only be dealt with by the long arm of the law,” John Scanlon addressed the room.
These crimes are estimated to have an annual value of USD69-199 billion, according to a 2016 UNEP-Interpol Rapid Response Assessment. This means that each year, governments across the world are deprived of between US$9 billion and US$26 billion according to the International Monetary Fund (2019).
UNCTOC has adopted protocols including clear definitions for a number of other serious transnational organised crimes, including trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants and illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms. It is surely time to add wildlife crime to that list?
Doesn’t CITES aim to stop wildlife crime?
At present, there is no international agreement applying to wild animals and plants that are being illegally exploited (domestically and/or internationally) by organised criminals.
The existence of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is often misinterpreted as an advocate space to fight wildlife crime — and governments themselves have largely relied on the trade-related convention known for their legal framework on the wildlife trade.
CITES is in fact an international agreement that aims to ensure the international trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival, but it does not apply to domestic crimes such as poaching and illegal logging.
Plants and animals not covered by CITES that are illegally harvested in their country of origin, can for the most part be legally imported and traded by other countries.
Mark Jones, Head of Policy at Born Free Foundation explained; “When CITES started in 1973, there were around 4 billion people on the planet. Half of what we have today. “
“The global demand for wildlife products for furniture, fashion, art, decor, cosmetics and perfume, food, medicine and pets, is driving the international trade in threatened species.”
It’s important to recognise that the role — and ever-growing expectation of CITES to end wildlife crime as a stand-alone body — simply cannot stretch to fit the pace at which human population and consumption has expanded.
Of the world’s roughly eight million species, CITES regulates the international trade in 5,800 species of animals and 30,000 plant species.
It obliges countries to put in place mechanisms to limit and monitor international trade in listed species, but does not, however, oblige countries to criminalise illegal wildlife trade, despite the substantial environmental and ecological impacts and significant losses in fiscal revenues.
“Environmental crime is transnational organised crime, and as such we need to improve political will at all levels,” Mark Jones added, after expressing confidence in cross-party support for the new initiative.
“At present, the perpetrators see wildlife crime as low risk and high return, and that must change.”
How does Coronavirus COVID-19 link to wildlife crime?
Given current climes, the presentation of this newly proposed international agreement would have been remiss in its duties if it didn’t touch upon the connection between the illegal trade in wildlife and public health.
A substantial amount of wildlife, plants and wildlife products are poached, trafficked or smuggled for consumption — including some of our planet’s most endangered species.
Markets selling live animals in particular are considered a potential source of infections new to humans e.g. Ebola, MERS, SARS and COVID-19.
Recently researchers in Guangzhou, China, have suggested that Pangolin, the most trafficked animal for food and traditional medicine products, is a possible host for the Novel Coronavirus, although the precise source of the outbreak has yet to be confirmed.
John Scanlon AO touched upon this, stating: “We’ve seen a lot in the news about the wet markets in Wuhan, China, as a possible source of the outbreak — and China isn’t the only place where we see wet markets — but the public health implications are massive.”
“Pangolin are now being associated with the spread of Coronavirus. In 2016, all 8 pangolin species were uplisted to Appendix I at the CITES Convention of the Parties.”
“Between 2016 — 2019, there were 206.4 tonnes of pangolin scales confiscated — that’s after the uplisting at CITES had taken place.”
He comments certainly showed not only the scale of the public health risk that the illegal wildlife trade presents, but also stand to reinforce the clear notion that CITES alone is not a fix-all solution to protecting endangered species.
Mark Jones added: “Following the recent outbreak, China have put measures in place to regulate these markets and stop the sale of illegal wildlife animals.”
“It’s true that the 2020 biodiversity targets have not been met, but the Coronavirus could be the tipping point in meeting the next biodiversity targets — and China may take a global lead in tackling illegal wildlife and environmental crime.”
#EndWildlifeCrime to help end wildlife crime
“On UN World Wildlife Day, #EndWildlifeCrime urges the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to bring wildlife crime within the legal framework of the UNCTOC, thereby reflecting the clear resolve of the global community to treat such crimes as serious crimes.” said Will Travers OBE, Executive President of the Born Free Foundation.
An international agreement applying to wild animals and plants that are being illegally exploited (domestically and/or internationally) by organised criminals would aim to:
— Recognize the scale of the threat to species, ecosystems, local and national economies and to public health;
— Encourage more countries to treat crimes that have an impact on the environment as serious crimes;
— Further embed combating wildlife crime in the criminal justice system;
— Deepen international cooperation and involvement of police, prosecutors; and other agencies;
— Provide a common agreed definition of wildlife crime
— Enhance the overall law enforcement effort.
Sir John Randall, Lord Randall of Uxbridge concluded the presentation with the parting advice: ‘Please share the message to #EndWildlifeCrime.’
Call for a new wildlife crime protocol to be introduced; urge countries that are Parties to the UNCTOC to start negotiations on this protocol as a priority action.
Want to know more about the illegal wildlife trade?
- Aidan Gallagher, UN Ambassador for Environment, discusses the Illegal Wildlife Trade and saving the oceans
- Discover what happened at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference 2018
Learn more about CITES
- Read about the rhino horn trade pre-CITES debate
- Read about the plight of elephants during CITES 2016
Learn more about the trade in rhino horn
- Learn how the all-female anti-poaching unit; the Black Mambas, are fighting poachers
- Discover one six-year old’s efforts raise awareness of the rhino horn trade
- Discover Remembering Rhinos…
- Hear my thoughts on the controversial new film ‘Trophy’, about legalising the trade in rhino horn
- Introducing Sides of a Horn – Guest post by Bavukile Vilane
- Sides of a Horn film: interview with Director Toby Wosskow
Learn more about the plight of African elephants
- How Many elephant initiative
- Learn about Amarula’s support of How Many Elephants
- Read about the plight of elephants during CITES 2016
- Discover the short film ‘The Elephant in the Room’
- Read more about ivory poaching
- Find out about my World of Wildlife Art Exhibition in support of elephants
- See what happened on World Elephant Day 2018