WWF UK Blog  

Is the UK tough enough on criminals that illegally trade wildlife?


Illegal wildlife trade is a hot topic at the moment – and rightly so.  It threatens the extinction of many species as diverse as sharks, pangolins and tigers.  It sometimes seems that not a week goes by without hearing of poached rhinos in South Africa or elephants in Tanzania.

So what is the UK doing to tackle illegal wildlife trade?

We should be proud that we’re already leading the way in many respects.  The Government funds work internationally to stop the poaching, stop the trafficking and stop the buying of illegal wildlife products.  Funded projects have included training Border Forces in the Horn of Africa on wildlife trade and improving wildlife forensics across Africa to increase the number of successful convictions.

WWF's work at Heathrow Airport with WWF-UK's ambassador Deborah Meaden and sniffer dog team on Tuesday 19 February 2013. Photograph taken at Custom House of Elephant ivory bracelets seized by Border Force. Deborah Meaden is an ambassador for WWF-UK. As part of her support for WWF's illegal wildlife trade campaign (June 2012 to June 2013), Deborah joined WWF-UK on a visit to Heathrow airport to meet the CITES Border Force team, the sniffer dogs they use and their handlers.WWF’s work at Heathrow Airport Border Force © WWF-UK / James Morgan

The UK has also hosted an international conference international conference on illegal wildlife trade back in 2014, which resulted in the Buckingham Palace Declaration that 41 countries adopted.  Just recently in Hanoi, Vietnam, Heads of State and Ministers again met to discuss progress on tackling illegal wildlife trade nationally and internationally.  The conference highlighted that many countries need to improve their enforcement and legislation related to wildlife crime.  And the UK has committed to hold the next international conference on illegal wildlife trade in 2018.

Sentencing wildlife trade offences

One area, however, where the UK lags behind is in sentencing convicted wildlife trade criminals.  A recent WWF report showed that the sentences given to those that have been convicted of illegal wildlife trade are inconsistent and lenient.  By looking at 174 cases of illegal wildlife trade between 1986 and 2013 that resulted in convictions in England and Wales, almost three-quarters of cases resulted in non-custodial sentences.  This means that they were not sent to prison.

A male Tibetan antelope / chiru (Pantholops hodgsonii) in the Chang Tang nature reserve of central Tibet during the rutting season. December 2006A Tibetan antelope in central Tibet © naturepl.com / George Chan / WWF

Lax sentencing in the UK

For instance, in 2000, a company was found guilty of selling 138 shahtoosh shawls made from the wool of approximately 550 Tibetan antelope.  This endangered species has maybe as few as 75,000-100,000 animals left in the wild – at least a third fewer than African elephants.  The demand for the antelope’s luxury wool, which is reported to be the most expensive in the world, has pushed the species to the brink of extinction.  Despite being listed on Appendix 1 of CITES, meaning that there is no legal international trade, demand for the shawls could still be threatening their survival.  However, when tried in court, the company were only fined £1,500 and had to forfeit the shawls.  If tried by a judge and jury, the company could have been sentenced to a fine of any amount.

Another example also clearly demonstrates the current lax sentencing of illegal wildlife trade in the UK.  Earlier this year, an auction house was fined just £1,500 for selling hippo incisors, a sperm whale tooth and five pieces of elephant ivory (including four tusks).  This was despite the maximum sentence for this crime being five years imprisonment for individuals or an unlimited fine for companies.  In comparison, in 2014, the US courts sentenced a man to 70 months imprisonment for smuggling 30 rhino horns and ivory from the US to China.

Hippos (hippopotamus amphibius) resting in the water at Stiegler’s Gorge on the Rufiji river. For more than a decade a proposal was put forward by Rufiji River Basin Authority (RUBADA) to build a hydropower dam within the gorge and supply electricity to the Tanzania Electrical Supply Company (TANESCO). If implemented it will potentially create the sixth largest reservoir in Africa, flooding a huge area of land that many species rely on for movement and food. WWF believes that going ahead with the Steiglers’ Gorge Dam will have serious adverse environmental impacts for both upstream and downstream users. Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania. Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania is one of Africa’s largest wilderness areas and one of the most valuable and unique places on the planet. It was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1982 largely for its elephant and black rhinoceros populations. However, in 2014, Selous was put on the UNESCO list of World Heritage in Danger, mainly due to increased poaching that resulted in a dramatic decline in wildlife populations. There are also industrial threats from mining explorations and planned hydropower dams. WWF in collaboration with the Tanzanian government, Frankfurt Zoological Society and other partners, is working to create a sustainable future for Selous Game Reserve that will maintain its natural value, provide a space for nature as well as providing livelihoods and wellbeing for the communities adjacent to it. In Selous’ wildlife corridors WWF works directly with local communities to maintain these vital passages and provide people with sustainable livelihoods.Hippos are on Appendix II of CITES, meaning that they need permits to be traded internationally

The need for sentencing guidelines

Our report showed that one of the reasons for the lenient sentences imposed in the UK is that judges and sentencers might not be informed about the seriousness of the crime or the harm caused.  WWF therefore believes that guidelines could help ensure that sentences given reflect the harm caused and potential profits made by criminals.  Guidelines are produced by the Sentencing Council and set out clear ways that appropriate sentences can be reached.  They look at the seriousness of the offences, as well as culpability and harm caused.  However, to date, the Sentencing Council has no intention to create these guidelines.

Last year, the Environmental Investigation Agency released a report evaluating the challenges and progress of some key countries that adopted the Buckingham Palace Declaration.  The report made a number of recommendations, including imposing appropriate penalties and creating sentencing guidelines for wildlife trade crimes. According to the EIA ”The criminal justice response to wildlife crime has largely been inadequate to turn the tide against the organised criminal syndicates involved in wildlife crime, which therefore continues to be a high profit, low risk crime”.

WWF are therefore calling for the Sentencing Council of England and Wales to create guidelines on illegal wildlife trade offences.  Action taken by UK courts can have a significant effect both domestically and internationally. The UK Government is making welcome efforts to urge other countries to treat illegal wildlife trade seriously, but it must also do so itself, particularly by passing sentences that reflect the significant impacts of such crimes.  Creating sentencing guidelines could be a clear way to show the world that we are leading the way in addressing illegal wildlife trade.

You can support our work on tackling illegal wildlife trade by adopting a rhino.

To read more about the amazing work we do on reducing illegal wildlife trade, check out Heather Sohl’s blog.

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