UK’s wildlife crime condundrum

The UK Border Force recently seized illegal wildlife products including ivory and marine turtle eggs as part of a global operation, yet wildlife crime convictions have dropped in the UK. Born Free is demanding more action from Government.  

A handbag made from crocodile skin, with the snout still visible on the bag.

Products made from animal skin were amongst those seized © M Dooley

During October, the UK’s Border Force played a key role in Operation Thunder, the seventh annual joint international operation aimed at cracking down on the global trafficking of threatened wildlife. Yet, although levels of wildlife crime in England and Wales remain high, the number of convictions has dropped and Born Free is calling on the Government to do more. 

This year’s operation, which was coordinated by Interpol and the World Customs Organization and in which enforcement authorities from 133 countries participated, resulted in more than 2,000 seizures of contraband worldwide consisting of specimens of internationally protected animal and plant species. Among the seizures were 1,370 live birds, 53 live primates, four live big cats, more than 2,600 cubic metres of timber, 300kg of ivory, thousands of turtle eggs, and some 30 tonnes of plants. Many of the seized items were destined to be sold illegally on online sales platforms. 

According to Interpol, some 500 people were arrested. 

Here in the UK, Border Force made 145 seizures of endangered wildlife products as part of the operation, consisting of thousands of products from threatened animal and plant species including 53 live birds, clothes and accessories made from snakeskin and turtle shell, ivory products, health products containing cactus and orchid, crocodile blood and caviar. 

A selection of items carved from ivory, including elephant ornaments, laid out on a blue cloth

Products made from ivory are still traded

Globally, wildlife trafficking is estimated to be worth as much as £13.56 billion (US$17 billion) per year and is among the top four organised criminal activities alongside arms, drugs and human trafficking. 

As Born Free’s Head of Policy Dr Mark Jones noted, “Wildlife trafficking is serious, organised, transnational, and increasing. It contributes to the extinction risk facing countless species of wild animals and plants, negatively impacts on ecosystems, poses a threat to national and regional stability, undermines good governance and the rule of law, and increases the likelihood of disease emergence. It is also closely tied to other forms of serious crime, such as corruption, fraud and money laundering.  

“All too often, criminal gangs view wildlife trafficking as a low-risk high-return activity. The work of Border Force in interrupting the trafficking of wildlife products across our borders is critical to the UK’s efforts to tackle this scourge. With so much of the world’s wildlife in crisis, it’s vital that our enforcement agencies are properly resourced to enable this essential and highly specialised work to continue.” 

However, while welcoming the vital efforts of UK Border Force and other enforcement agencies to tackle wildlife trafficking, the news comes at a time when the UK’s wider response to wildlife crime is under question. 

Just a week before the release of the results of Operation Thunder, Wildlife and Countryside Link, of which Born Free is an active member, released its latest annual wildlife crime report, which revealed that while reported levels of wildlife crime in Egland and Wales remain high, the number of convictions in 2022 dropped by 40% compared to the previous year. Nature groups are demanding that the UK Government increases its efforts to tackle wildlife crime. 

Born Free’s UK Wildlife Advocate and Policy Advisor Dominic Dyer, who chairs Wildlife and Countryside Link’s Wildlife Crime working group, said: “To put it simply, people who hurt wildlife are getting away with it, with a lack of convictions leaving them free to cause further suffering. Despite shockingly high levels of wildlife crime in recent years we’re not seeing higher levels of convictions to give nature the justice it deserves. 

“With the Government’s deadline to halt the decline of nature by 2030 getting ever closer, it’s time for ministers to take the issue of wildlife crime seriously. This means the Home Office making it a notifiable offence to help police forces identify crime hotspots and plan accordingly.” 

The Link report estimates that in 2022, there were around 4,457 reported wildlife crime incidents in England and Wales, compared to 4,885 in 2021 (a record level sustained from a surge in incidents in 2020 during the pandemic), with some types of crime such as crimes against bats increasing markedly. Despite record levels of wildlife crime in 2021, there was a notable 42% fall in subsequent convictions for wildlife crime, from 900 in 2021 to 526 in 2022. 

The poor conviction rate removes a key deterrent for would-be criminals and makes it more likely that perpetrators will become repeat offenders.  

In order to improve the UK’s approach to wildlife crime, Link member organisations are calling on Government to: 

  • Make all wildlife crimes notifiable to the Home Office, so such crimes are officially recorded in national statistics. This would better enable police forces to gauge the true extent of wildlife crime and to plan strategically to address it; 
  • Increase resources & training for wildlife crime teams in police forces. Significant investment in expanding wildlife and rural crime teams across police forces in England & Wales, would enable more investigations, and lead to further successful prosecutions. Funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit should be increased in line with inflation, to allow the Unit to continue its excellent work; 
  • Reform wildlife crime legislation. Wildlife crime legislation in the UK is antiquated and disparate. A 2015 Law Commission report concluded these laws are ‘overly complicated, frequently contradictory and unduly prescriptive’. Much of this stems from the need to prove ‘intention and recklessness’, which has stunted the potential for prosecution in even clear cases of harm being done to protected and endangered species. 

As well as calling on the UK government to do more, Born Free is working as part of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime in order to persuade Governments worldwide to develop and implement a legally binding global agreement on tackling wildlife trafficking. 

Anyone with information about activity they suspect may be linked to smuggling and trafficking of any kind can report it online at Report smuggling – GOV.UK ( Other types of wildlife crime should be reported to the police. 

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