Environmental Crime Threatens Europe’s Last Pristine Forests and Iconic Wildlife
Illegal logging and wildlife trade threaten the region’s biodiversity and people’s livelihoods despite European and international environmental legislation. The EU single market adds additional challenges to control illegal wildlife trade that moves freely between 28 member countries.
Illegal logging of timber continues to destroy some of Europe’s last remaining virgin forests, a considerable part protected as UNESCO World Heritage. While estimates vary across the region, satellite images and wide-ranging reports by e.g. Romanian forest district managers highlight illegal logging as one the most significant threats to sustainability.
The Carpathian forests are home to Europe’s largest remaining populations of brown bears, wolves and lynx, which despite being protected by EU and international laws and conventions, are frequently exposed to poaching.
The Danube river basin also sustains Europe’s last remaining viable populations of sturgeons. Illegally harvested caviar (sturgeon roe) reaches prices of up to 6,000 euros per kilogram on the black market – a trade worth at least 22 million euros per year to the EU. Already, one of the Danube sturgeon species has gone extinct and four are critically endangered and reported to be decreasing.
Illegal harvesting of wild birds is a little noticed wildlife crime in the region. However, 11-36 million birds are taken/killed illegally in the Mediterranean every year. In Serbia, for instance an estimated 104,000-163,000 individuals are being illegally killed/taken each year. These numbers are increasing. The birds are sold in restaurants in places like Italy and Malta.
“The looting of these natural resources undermines development and deprives governments of the money they need to promote jobs, education and health services”, said Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment. “These resources should rather be a solid foundation for future generations”, he added.
“Europe’s last remaining old-growth forests and their biodiversity are disappearing at alarming rates”, said Marco Lambertini, Director General, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) International. “The Danube river, here in the heart of Europe, host the sturgeon, one of the most ancient and endangered fish species in the World. The illegal caviar trade will wipe out this species unless action is taken to prevent it.”
In order to combat wildlife crime and illegal logging, the authors of the study recommend stepping up inter-agency collaboration within countries and cooperation between the states of the region on data sharing and law enforcement. To that aim, law enforcement agencies have to be better resourced and prosecution and jurisdiction trained to increase probability of cases to be brought before court and to result in relevant penalties. The EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking issued in 2016 is also in need of a strong implementation push at EU and national level.
- The Danube basin and Carpathian Mountains include all or part of fifteen countries of Central and Southeastern Europe that signed the Carpathian Convention and/or the Danube River Protection Convention: Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, southern Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, southern Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine;
- Survey of 345 forest district managers in Romania reported illegal logging as one of the chief challenges to sustainability;
- Of the six sturgeon species in the Danube basin, one is now extinct, four are critically endangered and one is vulnerable. The Beluga sturgeon has dropped by over 67% already in the 1980s, and is now critically endangered due to illegal fishing, alongside habitat loss and fragmentation;
- Over two thirds of Europe’s populations of large carnivores – bears, wolves and lynx live in the Carpathians. Populations are still stable – however, logging and poaching are increasing threats;
- Many regulations, programmes and conventions are in place, but the scale of environmental crimes suggest that there are substantial challenges with regard to actual implementation and resources available frontline. This is compounded by the lack of cross-border cooperation;
- EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) entered into force in 2013, aiming to ensure that illegally logged timber and timber products are no longer sold on the European market. In 2016 the European Commission carried out an evaluation of the EUTR, showing the need for more action from the Member States and the private sector to make sure the EUTR is put in action;
- In June 2016, EU member states adopted a robust and comprehensive EU Action Plan against wildlife trafficking. It aims to tackle wildlife trafficking more effectively by 2020, both in the EU and globally, by preventing and addressing the root causes of wildlife trafficking; enforcing existing EU rules; and strengthening international cooperation against wildlife trafficking;
- The EU Birds and Habitats Directives (EU Nature Directives) have been the cornerstones of EU nature protection policy for decades, and have brought about the creation of Natura 2000, the world’s biggest network of protected areas. The Habitats Directive protects some iconic species such as bears, wolves and lynx. However a ‘Fitness Check’ of the Directives conducted in 2015/16 showed that many Member States have not fully and effectively implemented their legal commitments under the Nature Directives. On 15 November 2017, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution on the European Commission’s proposed Action Plan for Nature, designed to improve implementation. This summer, a total of 5,500 hectares of primeval beech and virgin forests of the Carpathians and Podillya in Ukraine and 24,000 hectares of old-growth forests in eight areas of Romania were designated as UNESCO’s World Heritage sites, demonstrating the incredible natural wealth at stake.
- The UN Environment – WWF – Eurac Research report recommends that a targeted joint action programme should be established across the region to promote and implement the necessary measures to halt, monitor and roll back the threat from environmental crime, thereby ensuring sustainability and sustainable livelihoods in the region;