Green criminologist calls for stronger action on UK illegal wildlife trade

Spix's Macaw at the Vogelpark in Walsrode, Germany, in 1980; the species is now extinct in the wild owing in part to the depredations of illegal bird traders. Photo: Rüdiger Stehn (commons.wikimedia.org).
Spix's Macaw at the Vogelpark in Walsrode, Germany, in 1980; the species is now extinct in the wild owing in part to the depredations of illegal bird traders. Photo: Rüdiger Stehn (commons.wikimedia.org).
A senior wildlife crime lecturer has called for more cases to come before the British courts, and for more resources and stiffer sentences.

The illegal wildlife trade is an urgent environmental and conservation issue and has led to the rapid development of a new area of activism and research termed 'green criminology'. University of Huddersfield senior lecturer Melanie Flynn is making a key contribution to this burgeoning discipline, calling for more preventative action and extra resources for law enforcement, with more wildlife crime cases taken to court and heavier sentences being given.

Ms Flynn has formed a valuable research partnership with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and her latest article is written in collaboration with Sarah Goddard, who is Species Policy Officer for the WWF in the UK. Published in The Magistrate, it aims to heighten awareness of the serious impact of illegal wildlife trading, which the authors describe as “no ordinary crime”.

The authors assert that the high rewards and low risks of detection and punishment have made the illegal trade in wildlife attractive to criminals. They add that: “trafficking and poaching now threaten the stability and security of societies across the globe, as the trade becomes an organised and widespread criminal activity involving transnational networks.”

She called for more effective enforcement, including stricter controls and border checks so that more prosecutions are brought. Her research with the WWF has dealt with sentencing policy and she has conducted interviews with specialist prosecutors in the field.

“I am arguing for harsher sentences and more consistent sentencing through the introduction of guidelines that exist for many other crimes, but not for wildlife crime,” she said.

The illegal trade in wildlife ranges from live animals (including exotic birds for the cagebird trade) to a huge variety of materials derived from them, including food products, exotic leather goods, tourist curios and traditional 'medicines'. Some tourists might even return to the UK from overseas unaware that a souvenir they have bought might actually be illegal.

In the article, Melanie Flynn and Sarah Goddard write that, although the UK has made a firm commitment to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the country remains a consumer of illegal products such as ivory, medicinal and health supplements and items made from reptile skins. Also, the UK is a transit country for products that end up in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and other parts of Asia. A crackdown in the UK, with more cases coming before the courts, could send a “global message about acceptability of such behaviour and risks to potential offenders if they commit such crimes”.

“It's about changing the environment to reduce the opportunity to commit crime,” she explained. "So for example, rather than just trying to catch poachers and taking them to court, especially in areas where poaching might be their only source of income, you offer them work in fields such as tourism or as rangers – a viable opportunity that is different to the crime route.” Other measures could include a greater number of protected areas and conservancies, plus the use of drones to monitor the movement and welfare of wild animals.