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Europe must tame the illicit wildlife trade

The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the wildlife trade. Less well-known is that the European Union is one of the world’s leading markets both for licit and illicit wildlife.

Eva Izquierdo highlights how, despite its commitment to curbing this harmful commerce, the EU is failing to take sufficient action and new trade agreements risk making the situation considerably worse.

The European Commission recently launched an online public consultation to build consensus around the medium-term direction for EU trade policy. The consultation – and probably the entire review of the European Union’s trade policy – will focus on the aspects of international trade that the European Commission wishes to boost: economic growth, jobs and consumer choice.

This short-sighted consultation leaves completely unspoken and forgotten the negative aspects of trade, such as trafficking. Consequently, the European Commission is failing to deliver a comprehensive consensus on the future of EU trade policy by not weighing up the tradeoffs between the positive and the negative sides of trade. Both sides should have been integrated in the consultation to get a holistic approach on trade.

The EU seems to perceive increasing trade as something that is intrinsically good and as something that should be pursued as a stand-alone objective, no matter how serious its consequences, from biodiversity loss to huge amounts of waste and deforestation. Regarding the latter, the illegal timber trade supplies 10-15% of global demand for wood, which rises to 50% in certain areas, hurting state revenues, the livelihoods of the rural poor and inflicting irreparable damage on nature.

Crime and no punishment

Although the EU has committed to a more sustainable and responsible trade policy, it is not investing enough resources to crack down on environmental crime. The European Union’s efforts to boost international trading and investment opportunities will be futile and counterproductive if the EU does not urgently fill in the gaps in enforcement that allow environmental crimes to be perpetrated without suitable punishment. New trade deals that eliminate customs duties and increase trade at any cost will blow the door wide open for environmental criminals to be committed with impunity.

The case of illegal wildlife trade in particular underscores how much a holistic approach can help defining good trade policies. The line between legal wildlife trade and wildlife trafficking is blurry. EU legal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth €100 billion. The volume of wildlife trade has increased exponentially over the last few decades, helped by international trade agreements. According to WWF’s Living Planet Report 2020, trade has exploded with the value of exports rising 200-fold from 1970 to 2017, with the largest increases in developed countries (1,200-fold).

How many billions of disguised illegal trade is included in the €100 billion of legally wildlife traded? We cannot know but we can be certain that a good percentage is included.  Due to a lack of resources and staff, it is difficult for EU member states to crack down on wildlife trafficking and properly implement the EU action plan against wildlife trafficking.

There is also a significant loophole which blur the lines between the legal and illegal and provide opportunities to effectively launders some forms of illicit trade. There are endangered and vulnerable species which are protected by domestic legislation and which are exported illegally out of their country of origin. However, once they reach the EU, these species can be legally traded.

Natural health insurance

Beyond the obvious, if shortsighted, economic benefits, trade policy can play an important in protecting ecosystems and, consequently, helping reduce the risk of future pandemics. If we want to strike the right balance between a Europe that is “open for business” and a Europe that protects its people, Europe needs to eradicate illegal wildlife trade and its fatal consequences for human health.

Scientists are convinced that pandemics whose origin is wildlife consumption or increasing proximity to wildlife due to habitat destruction will become more frequent in the near future. In addition to the current COVID-19, another coronavirus known as MERS-COV or camel flu is still killing people. In November 2002, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) began in China and spread to 29 countries. Before SARS, the world was hit by HIV, Ebola and avian flu.

Wildlife trafficking is not only a clear threat to global biodiversity but also to the European Commission’s ambition of using trade policy to develop international governance measures that support stability and predictability. Wildlife trafficking threatens national security and fuels conflicts by providing funding to militia and terrorist groups in developing countries. More than 1,000 rangers have been killed during anti-poaching operations in the last 10 years, mostly in Africa and Asia.

Therefore, in addition to promoting environmental objectives such as wildlife protection, EU trade policy and international trade agreements should ensure effective enforcement inside and outside Europe, by incorporating concrete  measures to reduce environmental crime and in particular wildlife trafficking. Such actions could include prioritising the prosecution of wildlife trafficking in criminal justice systems, using community-based social marketing to reduce demand and implementing strong measures to combat corruption at all levels.

The EU could reduce wildlife trafficking by requiring minimum supply chain due diligence and related public reporting for all goods placed on its market and exported from its territories.

As the Union moves towards digital product passports, these passports and information should be shared with our trading partners and they should be required to use such passport before placing products on the EU market. This will help increase traceability and transparency about the risks in the global supply chains, and will help in joint international control mechanisms and enforcement efforts, as well as ensure that people and consumers have the same level of information on the products that they buy, regardless of their origin.

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