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EU battles illegal wildlife trade

Melanie Hall
June 20, 2016

The EU's approval of wildlife trade measures helps even up the battle against a long list of foes: criminal gangs, tribes hunting to feed their families, even corrupt guards supposed to protect animals.

Burning ivory in Kenya - photo credit AP/Ben Curtis.
Image: picture alliance/AP Images/B. Curtis

The struggle against wildlife trafficking has been given a much-needed boost after the European Union approved a series of measures to tackle the surge in the illegal trade.

Ministers on the EU's Environment Council agreed to set in motion a five-year plan that would define illegal wildlife trafficking as a serious crime for the first time.

The plan aims to prevent trafficking, reduce supply and demand for illegal products, toughen existing laws, combat organized crime and boost cooperation between countries.

As one of the world's most lucrative criminal activities, raking in up to 20 billion Euros ($23 billion) annually, illegal wildlife trade ranks fourth globally in terms of value behind trafficking in drugs, trafficking in people and counterfeiting.

Wildlife trafficking has helped fund extremist and militia groups, particularly in Africa - Somalia's al-Shabab, Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army and Sudanese armed groups have all been implicated in the illicit ivory trade.

A crucial component of the plan is providing funding support to African countries and promoting projects for local people there to find alternative sources of income.

The ivory trade in Angola - photo credit AP/Lucy Vigne.
European countries carry out a third of all ivory seizures worldwideImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Vigne

Choking the illegal wildlife trade

The EU's plan has the potential to make a real dent in the illegal wildlife trade, given that Europe acts as a large market, transit route and source of it. The continent accounts for around a third of all ivory seizures worldwide, with Belgium, France, Portugal and the UK acting as key transit routes.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which helped advise the EU on developing the plan, welcomed the move.

Robert Kless, campaign leader for the IFAW in Germany, said: "The wildlife trade is a transnational problem which we can only effectively address together at an EU-wide level."

Pointing to several large ivory seizures in Europe in May, Kless said many European states are aware that they must take rigorous action. "France leads the way with a good example by totally banning the ivory trade - but that's only of any use when legislation corresponds with those of neighboring countries, otherwise the trade simply relocates elsewhere."

The EU estimates that around 1,000 rangers are believed to have been killed in anti-poaching operations around the world over the past decade. Ivory, tiger products, tropical timber, rhino horn and exotic birds are among the most valuable wildlife products on the black market.

Live reptiles including snakes, iguanas and tortoises are regularly seized at EU borders, as well as live plants like cacti and orchids.

Should the trend continue as it has been doing up to now, in 25 years there would be no more elephants or rhinos left in the wild, Karmenu Vella - the EU's commissioner for environment affairs - has previously warned.

A white rhino killed by poachers for its horn in Africa - photo credit BWA.
Rhinos in the wild may no longer exist in 25 years' time, warns the EUImage: picture alliance/WILDLIFE

Massive problem of corrupt officials

This comes as a recent United Nations report confirmed that corrupt officials, rather than terrorist groups or tribal peoples who hunt to feed their families, are at the heart of wildlife crime in many parts of the world.

The report's findings have coincided with a series of arrests of wildlife officials across Africa and Asia, raising fears over a global "epidemic" of poaching and corruption among armed wildlife guards tasked with protecting endangered species.

Recent conservation corruption arrests include wildlife guard Mpaé Désiré in Cameroon, and a local police chief who were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the illegal ivory trade on the ancestral land of the Baka tribe and other rainforest peoples.

Désiré was alleged to have beaten up tribespeople and torched one of their forest camps after accusing them of poaching.

According to Survival International - a global movement for tribal peoples' rights - the involvement of armed guards in poaching in countries where militarized conservation tactics are employed raises questions over the use of violence and intimidation to protect flora and fauna.

The group said that in many parts of the world, armed conservation has led to violence against local tribal peoples, including in Cameroon, and in India where it said summary execution in the name of conservation is in danger of becoming more widespread.

In February 2016, Survival International filed a complaint to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) against conservation charity the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for its involvement in funding what it calls repressive and often violent conservation projects in southeast Cameroon, rather than tackling the real poachers.

A pangolin in Africa - photo credit Picture Alliance.
Chinese demand for the pangolin is pushing the endangered animals closer to extinctionImage: picture-alliance/Evolve/Photoshot

Tackling the problem at its root

Earlier this month, the UN and its partners approved an additional $40 million funding to support the Global Wildlife Programme in 19 African and Asian countries, in order to address the growing poaching crisis.

The national program, which was initially approved in 2015 for 10 countries by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), was expanded on June 10, 2016, to cover an additional nine countries in Africa and Asia increasing the funding to $131 million.

One of the additional countries is Kenya, which in April held the largest ever burning of ivory, setting light to 120 metric tons of ivory.

Europe "plays a direct roll as a market for wild animals and wild animal products," Kless told DW, adding that with the action plan, "the EU had finally set out the important framework in order to better coordinate the fight against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade."

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