Posted on 04 May 2020
Illegal wildlife trade is lucrative business
have begun to create a network of experts throughout Central and Eastern Europe to improve the fight against forest crime. Workshops have already been held for police, prosecutors, forest management and environmental organisations in Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. Most recently, a workshop was conducted in Bratislava, Slovakia. Among the speakers was Stephanie von Meibom from TRAFFIC
, a leading non-governmental organisation working globally on trade in wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. Andrea Settey Hajdúchová from WWF-Slovakia
spoke with her about environmental crime, and the illegal trade of animals, plants and timber. For example, how does the European illegal wildlife trade differ from the situation in Asia currently being blamed as the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic?
This interview with Stephanie von Meibom from TRAFFIC
was conducted during a workshop about forest crime at the end of January 2020 organised by WWF and Interpol, one of several across the region.
According to Interpol, environmental crime now ranks as the 3rd largest criminal sector worldwide. The development of this criminal sector has been rapid. Just year ago it was 4th. With all the information about the importance of nature protection, how has this happened?
It is hard to quote accurate statistics about environmental crime, but those numbers from Interpol are the most credible. We have seen a steady 5-7% annual increase in environmental crime. And what is even worse, we see the connection between environmental crime and other types of crimes such as drugs, the weapons trade and money laundering. If there is already black market network established, it makes sense to use it for different types of products. And the reason why we have seen the increase in the environmental crimes is that this type of crime brings high profit with low risk. For example, about 15 years ago trade in rhino horns wasn’t really a problem, but lately we have seen an increase. Criminals discovered this area to be very lucrative. And this may sound frustrating, but on the other hand, as a result, the global community and law enforcement networks are investing more to investigate such cases. This may be another reason why we see an increase of this type of crime reported.
You mention rhino horns, but generally, what makes up the biggest part of environmental crime?
We are careful when speaking about such statistics because doing so may also influence interest by criminal elements and give even more value to illegal products. But if we stick to Interpol’s statistics, we see that forest crimes and illegal logging are leading the environmental crimes statistics, followed by illegal fishing, illegal mining, illegal wildlife trade and illegal waste dumping. We at TRAFFIC are dealing mostly with the wildlife trade. Our mission is to help ensure that wildlife trade of plants, timber or animals is not a threat to nature conservation.
TRAFFIC focuses on wildlife trade. What differences in demand are seen across the world? People know mostly about China and the market for animal products for traditional medicine. But what about Europe?
The EU is a massive consumer of a lot of different wild animals and plants, as well as timber. But in Europe the demand is mostly for live animals. Years ago, parrots were trendy. Now it is reptiles and amphibians, which are exotic and people think that it is easier to keep them. Problems occur when people try to source very rare and strictly protected species. Those animals are illegally imported into Europe and then misleadingly declared to have been raised in captivity. If accepted, this declaration allows the animals to be sold legally to final consumers.
In Asia, another big problem is the trade in song birds. What surprised me is that, according to TRAFFIC, this trade has reached a critical point and some species are almost extinct because of this.
Keeping songbirds is a very strong tradition in some parts of Asia. I was working in Asia there was a bird cage in every house. People are proud on their birds and even organise singing competitions between them. It is sometimes really heart breaking - cities are full of birds in cages, but when one goes to the forest, it is really quiet out there. Some of the bird species are very close to extinction because of this tradition. But the songbird market is not really a transboundary trade. Most of the birds go to local markets. However, there is also a songbird market in Europe. For example, Italians have a tradition to eat some songbirds. TRAFFIC is monitoring this trade in Europe, specifically countries that supply the market; mostly Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro (last report here
It may look like trade in animal parts for traditional medicine is something which is far from Europe. But even in Slovakia a discussion has started about the several tiger farms in the country that are promoted as places designed to help nearly extinct tigers, and where people can come and see the tigers, or even touch them.
With tigers the situation is severe.
According to WWF, there are only about 3,900 tigers left in the wild and more - about 7000-8000, are being
held captive in breeding facilities in Asia and the United States.
TRAFFIC is now looking more into the global situation of tigers because we see that a similar structure exists in different countries around the world, and even in the Europe. We don’t know yet how big the issue is, but we are working on it. And we see that it is an issue even in Eastern Europe. Media in the Czech Republic published an article describing how police and state nature inspection investigated such a tiger farm in Prague. Tiger parts such as fur and bones were intended for the illegal market (see The Guardian
(UK) or Slovak SME article
According to TRAFFIC, timber is the world’s most valuable wildlife commodity?
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated the total value of global timber product exports in 2016 to be worth USD 227 billion. It is estimated that between
10–30% of global timber trade is conducted illegally – mostly exotic wood species such as rosewood, which is also imported to Europe and used for musical instruments or furniture.
What is the position of Europe in this trade?
The EU is a consumer market. It is our responsibility to make sure that the wood and wood products we import are legal, and that consumers can rely on the system. The EUTR
(European timber regulation) was an attempt to do this. But it has been 7 years since it entered into force and we haven’t seen it taken seriously. Therefore, the workshops organised by WWF and Interpol within the EU Forest Crime Initiative are very important. Maybe they will not arrive at a final solution, but we are looking for the solutions and the workshops can help to find ways for these issues to be taken more seriously.
How does the situation in Central and Eastern Europe differ? For example, in Romania several forest rangers have been murdered, and huge areas of remote forest have been illegally cut. In comparison, what is happening in other parts of the region may not been seen as such a serious problem. Is this true?
There are different forms of illegality. The forest can be illegally cut under the cover of permits - we are losing more forest than the permits allow. This can be severe. Moreover, it is systematic. It is not always organised crime. More importantly, we must consider the effect on forest health and the natural values we are losing. So the question is not where it is the bigger problem, but what we can do to support authorities to understand the relevance of the problem, and look what they can do to deal with the situation. And I really see good will in the workshop meeting rooms. There are prosecutors, police officers, wood inspectors and NGOs; and they all want to solve the problem. One of the barriers is a lack of capacity.
You mentioned EUTR. What would you change to improve it?
I would probable design another law.
Could you explain why? There have been problems with its implementation in Slovakia. In fact, we should even pay a fine to the EU because its implementation has been delayed for 5 years. Now, we finally created the Slovak Forestry and Wood Inspectorate. But even here at the workshop we could hear comments that the Inspectorate focuses more on the control of administrative requirements.
More countries have problems with EUTR implementation, it is not easy. It is great that the EU is trying to solve the problem of wood trade, but EUTR puts all the responsibility on so-called “operators” (each person or company within the wood trade chain) - which is really difficult. They must create a due diligent system to prove that the wood they trade is legal. But after 7 years, it is still not really clear how such a system would look, and it is confusing and very hard to control.
With respect to wildlife trade, what is your “heart issue,” what worries you the most?
There is, of course much to be worried about. But I would like to talk more about what I and my colleagues are working on now, and it is the trade in plants. Lots of products we are dealing with in our daily life – tea, creams, spices, drinks, all contain plants. And many people think – and I thought this as well – that they are cultivated. But it is not true. About 60%-80% of plants used in food, cosmetics and medicine are sourced in the wild. On the one hand, it could cause a problem when the plant is endangered or overharvested. On the other hand, it provides an opportunity for local people to make a living. Moreover, wild plants are often commercially harvested in regions with a high unemployment rate and low income. We plan to work more on this topic in this region. TRAFFIC, together with others, has developed a standard for the collection of wild plants called FAIRWILD
. The international standard certifies aspects of sustainable harvest of wild plant resources, while also ensuring that harvesters and collectors are treated in a fair manner and earn a fair price.
It is also a topic in Slovakia where people are used to collecting plants and wild berries. It is very often a source of income for local people…
It does not mean that it is illegal. Many of these plants are not protected or endangered. The problem is when they are harvested unsustainably. Changing this means that both people and nature can benefit. And moreover, certification of high quality and sustainability means added value and is an opportunity for local economic growth. In Europe, the biggest exporter of these products is Germany, often as a middleman. But when you keep the high quality product local, the local residents and local economy benefit.
What is the scale of this trade?
The biggest global exporter is China, which in 2013 exported over 1.3 billion kg of non-wood forest products. Globally the FAO estimates the trade to be about USD 20.6 billion (2010). Mostly, the products are meant for medicinal purposes. Some examples include the cinchona tree, willow tree, liquorice and pygeum; argan oil, shea butter and aloe for cosmetics; juniper, liquorice, Arabic gum, nuts, wild berries and acai for food products; and rattan and bamboo destined for household products.
Written by Andrea Settey Hajdúchová, WWF-Slovakia
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