The EU: open market for illegal wildlife trafficking?

In February, China’s top legislature, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, acknowledged that the source of the coronavirus was likely to be linked to the consumption of wild animals.

Eva Izquierdo explores Europe’s place in the international illegal wildlife trade, and points to what needs to be done.

China has decided to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade and ordered the closure of its ‘wet markets’ where wild animals are sold alive and dead for human consumption. The current COVID-19 is only the latest of several fatal pandemics and severe human illnesses whose source is believed to be a virus which jumped from wild animals to humans. In November 2002, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) spread to 29 countries

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the acting Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, stressed that many communities around the world, in particular in low-income rural areas, depend on wild animals for their livelihoods. She advises that while balancing the needs of those communities, the world needs to focus on tackling illegal wildlife trade.

China is not the only important market for illegal wildlife. Despite its comprehensive legal framework, the European Union is an important final market for illegally traded wildlife. The EU’s significance as a market for illegal wildlife products is detailed in the annual reports of large seizures which the European Commission has requested yearly since 2011.

The main wild commodities imported illegally into the EU between 2011 and 2014 include medicinal products derived from plants and animals, including seahorses musk deer and pangolins (which may have been an intermediate transmitter of the coronavirus from bats to humans); live and dead reptiles, especially tortoises, but also lizards, chameleons, snakes, iguanas and geckos; live birds and eggs (avian influenza is carried by numerous species of birds and poultry); as well as mammal bodies, parts and derivatives (skins in particular), including bears, wolves, big cats and bush meat.

Distribution across commodity groups of international seizure records of species mentioned in the Annexes to Council Regulation (EC) No 338/97, reported by EU countries, 2014

Source: Briefing prepared by TRAFFIC for the European Commission.

Combating crimes against nature

Acknowledging that the EU is also a major market for wildlife products, the European Commission made unprecedented efforts to raise the awareness of business, consumers and the general public about the features and scale of wildlife trafficking in Europe. In February 2016, the European Commission adopted the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking which sets out a comprehensive blueprint for fighting wildlife trafficking inside the EU and for strengthening the EU’s role in the global fight against these illegal activities. The plan has three main strands: better enforcement, enhanced cooperation, and more effective prevention.

Despite successfully raising the profile of wildlife trafficking to a priority issue, the action plan has had no perceptible impact.

TRAFFIC, the EU’s wildlife trade monitoring network, recently issued a report compiling the data of all seizures which fall under the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for 2018, which shows that the demand in the EU for wildlife species did not change from when the first data was gathered in 2011.

An overview of seizures of January to December 2018. Source: TRAFFIC report

In addition to being an import market, the EU is also a source region for some endangered species, including European Eels (Anguilla Anguilla). For instance, in the period 2016-17, 48 people were arrested and 4,000 kg of live juvenile eels, worth about €4 million, were seized.

Easy money

The scale of wildlife trafficking. Source: European Commission.

Illegal wildlife trafficking has become one of the world’s most lucrative organised criminal activities, which the European Commission estimates that is worth up to €20 billion a year globally.

Worldwide, the illegal wildlife trade has grown exponentially in recent years because it is considered a low risk-high return activity. In addition, not all illicit wildlife entering Europe is destined for European markets, with the EU often acting as a staging post. Enforcement bodies often seize pangolins, seahorses, ivory or shark fins coming from Africa and whose final destination is China. This transit flow could increase on the back of the recent Chinese ban.

The EU must remain vigilant and multiply its efforts to halt and reverse illegal wildlife trafficking. Not only is this lucrative trade risky for human health, it also directly undermines EU policies to support sustainable development worldwide, particularly the Sustainable Development Goals related to protecting global biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as efforts to strengthen good governance.

“Wildlife trafficking today is not only bringing some iconic species to the brink of extinction, but also hindering sustainable development worldwide as well as good governance”, a European Commission analysis concluded. In some African regions, for example, illegal wildlife trafficking threatens national security and fuels conflicts by providing funding to militias and terrorist groups.

For these reasons, the EU should effectively enforce and reinforce the measures contained in the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking, which is currently being evaluated and shall be revised by 2021 as well as making a strong commitment  in the upcoming EU Biodiversity Strategy.

Cover picture by Shukran888 – A Philippine Pangolin pup nudges its mother, rolled up in a protective ball. Photographed in the forests of Palawan. Pangolins are often referred to as the world’s most trafficked animal.