Together in Europe we can tackle the scourge of wildlife trafficking
EU action plan against wildlife trafficking is a welcome start to preserving threatened species for future generations, say Catherine Bearder and Sue Lieberman.
At a time when the world faces so many grave concerns - a deadly war in the Middle East, a destabilising migration crisis, shrinking icecaps and rising seas that threaten billions - it can be difficult to turn our heads to those issues that are not always in the headlines. But often it is these underlying global problems that are driving instability and corruption and that we must tackle if we are to build a better world.
One of those major issues is wildlife trafficking. Populations of threatened species are being pushed to the brink of extinction because of greed for illegal products such as elephant ivory, rhino horn, and tiger skins that is driving soaring rates of poaching.
A recent Wildlife Conservation Society study found that African forest elephants could become extinct within a decade. It is a sad reality that our grandchildren could grow up in a world where these treasured animals no longer exist in the wild.
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The problem goes beyond the demise of some of our most beloved and iconic species. Wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion euro transnational criminal enterprise, now ranked as the fourth largest illegal trade in the world.
The criminal syndicates that are driving the killing of elephants in Africa also often terrorise innocent civilians and threaten the security of local communities. Poaching and trafficking are also destabilising governments and undermining the rule of law in many countries, harming the livelihoods of people who live there and holding back economic development.
Furthermore, wildlife crime is fuelled by and further stimulates corruption along the entire supply chain. Many of the organised crime syndicates that are bringing ivory and other illicit goods to Asia, the U.S. and Europe are the same ones that traffic in weapons and drugs. The difference is that trafficking of wildlife is highly lucrative and low risk, because enforcement is relatively lax and the penalties if caught are often very limited.
Europe is a major transit hub and destination for both legal and illegal wildlife products, so Europeans have a vital role in putting a stop to these criminal activities that are decimating wildlife populations.
To that end, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in January 2014 calling for an EU action plan against wildlife trafficking. We then formed the MEPs for Wildlife and NGOs for Wildlife groups to keep the pressure up on the Commission to step up the fight against wildlife crime.
Last Friday, the college finally presented its action plan after months of preparations. It has been worth the wait. The plan puts forward concrete measures in all the areas we have been calling for. Crucially, it directs all EU countries to treat wildlife trafficking as the serious crime that it is.
Currently, wildlife traffickers in some member states are let off with a mere fine and a slap on the wrist, allowing them to be used as transit points for this despicable trade. Now the criminal gangs caught trafficking ivory and other illicit wildlife products will get the punishment they deserve, with minimum sentences of four years imprisonment introduced across the EU.
The plan will also give the EU more funding flexibility to tackle this problem at its source. Because of the scale of the issue, the plan attacks trafficking from different angles: reducing the demand for illegal wildlife products; stepping up enforcement and the fight against transnational organised crime; and substantially increasing support to source countries, particularly for anti-poaching and anti-trafficking work on the ground and including much-needed increased financing from EU development aid programmes.
The plan also takes the first steps toward addressing the issue of demand for ivory products in the EU by restricting trade to antique ivory items from long-dead elephants. Eventually, we would like to see an outright EU ban on ivory sales, which all countries must adopt if we are to crush the market for poached ivory.
This plan forms a solid basis for action. Now it is time to ensure it is fully implemented by the Commission, MEPs and all 28 EU national governments. Together in Europe we can tackle the scourge of wildlife trafficking and preserve threatened species for future generations.
Catherine Bearder MEP will host a discussion of the EU action plan in the Yehudi Menuhin space of the European Parliament on 2 March, 17.15. This will be followed by a screening of the National Geographic film, Warlords of Ivory, which vividly illustrates the evils created by wildlife trafficking.