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How Engaging Law Enforcement Institutions can help Protect Danube Sturgeons

Posted on May, 06 2020

Stable isotope analysis is a technique widely accepted in court cases and recommended in various international guidelines for tracking wildlife product origin such as ivory, and timber.
As part of the LIFE FOR DANUBE STURGEONS Project, trainings were held in Vidin and Svishtov, Bulgaria shortly before Bulgaria was put in COVID-19 lockdown. The trainings were aimed to increase the expertise and engagement of key institutions responsible for the implementation of the national sturgeon protection legislation. The engagement of law enforcement units is crucial in combating poaching and trafficking of endangered species, and for dismantling the most active organised crime networks involved in smuggling, money laundering, tax evasion and document counterfeiting - all illegal activities also associated with environmental crimes. The cooperation and effectiveness of law enforcement is more important than ever, as both individuals and organised crime try to profit from the COVID-19 movement restrictions and increase their poaching activities as we have seen from recent sturgeon poaching incidents in Bulgaria and Ukraine, and attacks on protected birds of prey across the region.
During the trainings, more than 50 Bulgarian Border Police were introduced to sturgeon biology, key stages of the sturgeon life cycle and habitats, and how to identify native and exotic sturgeon species found in Bulgaria. WWF-Bulgaria’s freshwater expert Stoyan Mihov presented past and ongoing sturgeon conservation activities, and the main issues associated with the production and trade of sturgeon products including caviar. “WWF is committed more than ever to raise awareness of, and to combat environmental crimes - especially trafficking in sturgeons that are so valuable for the biodiversity of the Danube River and the Black Sea.” - Stoyan Mihov, WWF-Bulgaria
Experts from the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency’s National Reference Laboratory for Fish Diseases, and the Department of Marine Biology and Ecology at the Institute of Oceanology (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences) had the chance to attend a practical training at the Leibniz-Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Berlin, Germany) and Agroisolab (Cologne, Germany) from March 2-4, 2020. The instruction focused on genetic and isotopic analysis, techniques used to distinguish between wild and artificially bred sturgeon products, and to verify their point of origin.
Prof. Dr. Arne Ludwig demonstrated the methods used at Leibniz-Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research for genetic sample testing and identification of species. These methods are particularly important to better understand the results of the LIFE FOR DANUBE STURGEON Project’s sturgeon product market surveys  in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.
Dr. Markus Boner from Agroisolab was able to present stable isotope analysis, a technique widely accepted in court cases and recommended in various international guidelines for tracking wildlife product origin. For example, the method is utilised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for ivory, and in the EU guidelines for timber tracking.
Bulgarian institutions have yet to find solutions to overcome their main problem, the lack of enough financial resources to buy the necessary equipment and supplies. However, the visiting experts were positive that all the showcased techniques can be applicable to their work, and said they will continue to be dedicated to saving the Danube sturgeons regardless of the limited resources they have access to.
Trainings of law enforcement authorities was the most important action carried out during the current spring season by the “LIFE FOR DANUBE STURGEONS” project’s partners, and striking results of the increased capacities could already be seen. In March, Bulgarian and Ukrainian authorities managed to prevent two poaching cases of Beluga sturgeon, which resulted in criminal proceedings against the poachers in Vilkovo.
Protecting sturgeon and their habitats is crucial if we are to achieve the New Deal for Nature and People’s goal of zero biodiversity and habitat loss by 2030.
For more information:
Roselina Stoeva
Project Coordinator and Regional Communications Officer for Sturgeons,
Tel: +359 885995559
WWF is engaged in sturgeon protection measures in most Danube countries. Sturgeons used to be present in almost all European rivers, but today seven out of the eight species of sturgeon on the European continent are threatened with extinction. Sturgeons have survived the dinosaurs, but now teeter on the brink of extinction. The Black Sea Region is crucial to the survival of these species in Europe. The Danube and the Rioni River in Georgia are the only two rivers remaining in Europe where migrating sturgeons reproduce naturally. The main reasons are overfishing and loss of habitat through dams that block migration routes or in-river constructions, facilitating navigation. These are often detrimental to the feeding and spawning habitats, necessary for sturgeon survival. Within the EU the only river with naturally reproducing sturgeon populations remains the Danube. Crucial but no longer reproductive stocks are left in the Po River in Italy and the Gironde in France. Restocking activities take place in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, France, Germany, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands. Our priority is to identify and protect the critical habitats of the remaining four sturgeon species (Huso huso, Acipenser stellatus, A. ruthenus, A. gueldenstaedtii) in the Lower Danube and north-western Black Sea, as well as to reduce pressure on their remaining populations by addressing poaching and ensuring protection.
The EU-funded LIFE project “Sustainable Protection of Lower Danube Sturgeons by Preventing and Counteracting Poaching and Illegal Wildlife Trade” is coordinated by WWF-Austria and implemented by WWF- Austria, WWF-Bulgaria, WWF-Romania, WWF-Serbia and WWF-Ukraine, together with the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority in Romania and IZW Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany. It started in October 2016 and will continue until the end of 2020. More on the project and its work to save Danube sturgeons:
The training focused on genetic and isotopic analysis, techniques used to distinguish between wild and artificially bred sturgeon products, and to verify their point of origin.
© WWF-Bulgaria
Trainings of law enforcement authorities was the most important project action carried out in spring. The capacity building has already produced striking results in wildlife crime prevention.
© WWF-Bulgaria