Event Report – The Illegal Wildlife Trade in Europe
‘The Illegal Wildlife Trade in Europe: Wild Birds and Caviar – Knowledge Exchange Roundtable’
On 22nd January 2020, the White Rose Brussels office hosted ‘The Illegal Wildlife Trade in Europe: Wild Birds and Caviar – Knowledge Exchange Roundtable’ event at the European Parliament. Hosted by Shaffaq Mohammed MEP (Yorkshire and the Humber), researchers from the ERC-funded BIOSEC Biodiversity and Security project from the University of Sheffield presented their findings on the illegal wildlife trade. Teresa Lappe-Osthege leads research on the illegal trade of wild birds in the Western Balkan region and how this profitable trade is able to operate within the EU. Hannah Dickinson’s research focuses on the illegal trade in caviar, how this has been linked to organised criminal groups and the relationship with current EU regulatory mechanisms. The discussion was chaired by Professor Rosaleen Duffy, Principal Investigator of the BIOSEC project, also from the University of Sheffield, with Mr Matthias Leonhard Maier, CITES and EU Wildlife Trade policy DG ENV European Commission, and Catherine Bearder MEP (South East England) completing the panel.
Shaffaq Mohammed MEP opened the roundtable which hoped to discuss the effectiveness of EU policy regulations in addressing illegal wildlife trade. Teresa Lappe-Osthege presented her research and essentially found that legal and illegal trade in birds from the Western Balkans into the EU is difficult to differentiate and enforce against. There is a grey market and some member states have links to the illegal trade at a high level. Governance structures play a part in making this form of trade difficult to measure and tackle; with the divergence in national legislation between countries in the region, there is an immense difficulty in tackling this problem cohesively. Songbirds are sought after because of their desirability as a symbol of wealth and as a luxurious delicacy. So, wealth is a driver that necessitates reduction strategies in order to reduce and then halt illegal bird trade. The panel concurred that illegal trade in this area is far from being resolved, and unfortunately, bird crime is a perceived as a lesser crime compared to the trade of ivory and tigers, thus is a lower priority.
Our second speaker, Hannah Dickinson, focused on the illegal trade of caviar, showing that in essence, caviar trade regulations have loopholes that make this issue still so pressing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognised sturgeon as the most critically endangered group of species. Hannah then outlined that in 2005, the European Commission voiced its commitment to tackling this form of illegal trade. Since 2010, kilograms seized per year of illegal caviar have drastically reduced in the EU. The industry has been completely transformed, with some experts claiming that regulations have been a success story and that illegal trade is non-existent, the justification being that the seizures of illegally obtained caviar has declined. However, the 2017 report in Danube/Carpathian region showed that the illegal trade in sturgeon and caviar still occurs. Furthermore, studies done in Bulgaria and Romania show that the problem is still there and the seizure data fails to paint the whole picture. Hannah then argued that it is necessary to re-politicise the seizure data. Ambiguities in policy exist and are the undercurrent of illegal trade.
Dr Matthias Leonhard Maier from the European Commission’s DG ENV presented the Wildlife Action Plan adopted by the European Union in 2016, although he pointed out that this is not legally binding. In the first two years, there has been a suspension of raw ivory exports and sustained awareness-raising with targeted sectors, as well as the designation of wildlife
crime as a priority in EU policy on organised crime in the 2018-21 cycle. He concluded that there needs to be a reduction in demand and supply of illegal trade to aid in tackling the issue illegal birdlife trade. Mr Maier raised the question that if the trade of ivory is prohibited, why is the same not true of bird trade? The new European Commission’s Green Deal places the natural environment at the centre of its policy initiatives, with the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 also forthcoming.
Our final speaker, Catherine Bearder MEP, founded the parliamentary intergroup MEPs4Wildlife in an effort to continue putting pressure on the EU to tackle wildlife crime, describing biodiversity loss as disastrous. The illegal trade of animals is the fourth largest criminal activity, adding that the presence of ‘grey trade’ is a pressing matter. The example of British finches being illegally captured in Essex and sold in a London pub was given. Whilst there is legislation present to tackle the issue, it is simply not being enforced by governments at a national level. It is particularly fascinating to see reports that the matter of illegal trade of birds and caviar has been resolved, however, evidence presented by our panel suggests that this is not the case and thus a need for an outside analysis of the sector.
Professor Duffy then opened the roundtable part of our event, inviting other researchers and experts in the field to pose questions to our speakers and engage in dialogue about the current regulations on the trade of songbirds and caviar. One audience member pointed out that current legislation only applies to recognised species under the CITES list, but does not extend further.
Mr Mohammed summarised the event, emphasising that the problem of illegal wildlife trade in Europe is far from being resolved. However, the von der Leyen Commission’s Green Deal offers hope not only of tackling climate change, but also the preservation of our biodiversity and minimising loss in this area. The panel presentations and frank discussion made for a fascinating roundtable, and the White Rose Brussels would like to extend its thanks to all who made the evening so successful.