An "enormous" surge in wildlife trafficking is fuelling unprecedented levels of poaching for some animal species, including elephants, tigers and rhinos, and has led to a serious threat of extinction in some cases.
More than 40 tonnes of illegal elephant ivory were seized in 2013, while 1000 rhinos were killed the same year compared to 13 in 2007. Illegal hunting also accounts for 78 per cent of deaths in Sumatran tiger populations.
As ALDE deputy Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy recently told the Parliament Magazine, "We are currently experiencing an enormous increase in wildlife crime, and seem to be silent witnesses to the plundering of our planet, from lungfish to lions, and from timber to tigers."
Criminals are not only targeting rare animals, with the commission pointing to figures showing illegal logging now accounts for up to 30 per cent of the global timber trade and contributes to more than 50 per cent of tropical deforestation in Central Africa, the Amazon and South East Asia. The value of illegal fishing is also estimated to reach €10bn per year.
Speaking last week at a conference organised in parliament by the Born Free Foundation, Gerbrandy has added his voice to calls for an EU action plan to end wildlife trafficking.
At the event, the Dutch MEP presented what he said were "concrete measures that would allow the EU to make a real difference. Measures that would paralyse the wildlife trade and could reduce demand in wildlife products."
His plans are based on recommendations in parliament's 2013 resolution on wildlife crime, for which he was co-rapporteur. According to Gerbrandy, "because of the resolution, the European commission is working on an action plan in which the development side in Africa, as well as the criminal side in the EU, and the demand side in Asia are being tackled."
However, he also wants to see parliament carry out a study on wildlife trafficking in the EU. The MEP called on the commission to take leadership on this issue, saying, "I remain fully committed for a European action plan against wild life crime and urge the commission to take action now and not wait until it's too late."
EU environment, maritime affairs and fisheries commissioner Karmenu Vella, however, defended the EU's approach, saying, "We have an ambitious policy against wildlife trafficking, and we are constantly fine tuning our approach. Already in February we brought in additional measures to ensure that imports of hunting trophies are legal and sustainable."
Vella said the commission's launching of a stakeholder consultation to assess the suitability of the EU's approach to wildlife crime, showed recognition of the surge in trafficking and poaching.
The Maltese official said the commission is looking at an action plan, saying, he had already held discussion with his colleagues "in charge of organised crime, external affairs and development cooperation," to see what added value there is in a new strategy compared to the individual measures already in place.
"[The commission] will work actively with member states and our international partners to crackdown on wildlife trafficking", he stressed.
EPP member Sirpa Pietikäinen - another speaker at the conference and winner of the Parliament Magazine's animal welfare award - wanted the EU to admit its own part in creating demand for illegal animal products.
"Instead of pointing its fingers to growing demand in the South East Asia, we need to recognise the EU's own role as a major transit and market for illegal wildlife products," she stressed.
The Finnish deputy said Europe needs to "control imports, raise awareness on the unsustainability of having exotic pets or ivory souvenirs, and […] adopt a framework law to cover the welfare of all animals." She also called on the EU to "stand firm in asking for stricter rules on trade for wild animals […] and monitoring those rules globally."
Greens/EFA MEP Benedek Jávor also highlighted the problems within Europe, underlining that "animal trafficking is particularly prevalent in eastern Europe, partly due to the proximity of Russia and the Balkan states to the illegal traffic routes that interweave the region".
For the Hungarian deputy, the issue was not only about wildlife protection but is "interlinked with organised crime and corruption".
For ALDE MEP Catherine Bearder, host of the Born Free Foundation conference, and member of the MEPs for wildlife intergroup, the the illegal wildlife trade "not only constitutes a major threat to ecosystems and endangered species, but poses a major security risk to countries worldwide".
According to Bearder, the annual turnover from wildlife crime stands at €17.92bn, and is the fourth biggest criminal activity in the world after the illegal drugs trade, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
"The development of a meaningful EU action plan against wildlife crime has broad political support across the parliament," she said and urged the commission to "come forward with such a plan without delay".