Europe Seeks Tougher Enforcement of Wildlife Smuggling Law

FRANKFURT, Germany, November 12, 2001 (ENS) - In the UK, wildlife smugglers can face seven years imprisonment, whereas in Belgium the maximum penalty for infringement of wildlife trade laws is just three months.

In some Member States of the European Union, illegal trade in wildlife is not even considered a criminal offence and is treated under administrative law.

But across the European Union a common wildlife trade law was passed four years ago, so critics say the common law is not being applied equally across the 15 member bloc.

Last week, for the first time since the European Union adopted the law governing trade in wildlife, representatives of the trade's regulatory agencies, public prosecutors and NGOs met to develop recommendations for improving its implementation to protect wild animals not only in Europe but around the world.


Orangutans like this one in Borneo, Indonesia are highly prized by smugglers. (Photo by Susan Thornton courtesy Solar in the Jungle)
Participants in the two-day workshop on enforcement which concluded in Frankfurt, Germany November 6 wound up by calling for the development of better guidelines and establishment of the enforcement networks and improved co-operation on all levels.

Co-ordination among agencies within a country, among EU Member States, and also between EU countries and others, was one of the meeting's strongest recommendations. The other was improving public awareness of the importance of wildlife trade controls, and their value in achieving environmental goals.

The workshop was convened by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, and the Environmental Law Centre of IUCN - The World Conservation Union. The workshop was supported in part by the European Commission, and by contributions of IUCN and TRAFFIC, with additional support by the Zoological Garden Frankfurt, the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation of Germany (BfN), the CITES Secretariat and WWF-Germany.

"The aim of the workshop was to identify differences in enforcement and prosecution of EU wildlife trade law, and devise improvements in all Member States. It is clear that this workshop is an important move in the right direction," said Monika Anton of TRAFFIC-Europe.

The lack of coordination and awareness in the past has been a factor allowing some of the most extreme criminal violators to go unpunished. The workshop offered examples of such cases, where non-resident smugglers managed to evade punishment in the country where they were apprehended.

"These examples seriously undermine international efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade. The EU, as one of the largest marketplaces for wild animals and plants, should acknowledge its responsibility and ensure that wildlife trade crime is adequately prosecuted and penalties fit the seriousness of the crime" says Anton.


UK Customs officer inspects a shipment of reptiles at London's Heathrow Airport. (Photo courtesy TRAFFIC/Crawford Allen)
All EU countries have adopted legislation to implement the common wildlife trade law but they have varying levels of experience in enforcing these laws.

"According to our research, nearly all Member States have adequate laws. The challenge for EU countries is to move toward the better effectiveness of wildlife trade regulations, and to find ways of using their basic systems to achieve conservation objectives worldwide," said Tomme Young, a legal officer of IUCN.

In Germany, smuggling of wildlife can result in up to five years of imprisonment and a fine of DM100,000 (US$45,750).

In a major wildlife trade case in December 2000, a German national was sentenced to three years imprisonment for smuggling protected live animals for zoos and wildlife parks in an operation that involved more than 25 countries.

Orangutans, Javan gibbons, Komodo dragons and Red-crowned cranes were transported across international borders in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, where they are in the most protected category.

Even though prosecution stated that this case involved organized criminal activity, says TRAFFIC, the prosecution charges on organized crime were dismissed.

Another widespread problem identified at the workshop is that violations of the EU wildlife trade regulations are often deemed insignificant and so the appropriate application of the law is rarely used.

"Too often illegal wildlife trade is considered only a petty crime, and smugglers get away with just minor warnings," said Anton. "For example, in the UK a trader offering many Shahtoosh shawls was fined only 1,500 for shawls that were worth around 353,000."

Recognizing that penalties are an important part of the equation, the workshop considered two programs for calculating monetary and incarceration penalties for wildlife smuggling. Depending on national law, these mechanisms could form the basis of the sentencing guidelines. They might form a part of a more general framework on how countries can improve the effectiveness of their prevention of crimes against protected or threatened species.