Europe, a silent hub of illegal wildlife trade

Illegal wildlife trade is often addressed as a problem of developing countries - yet the European Union also has plenty to do with it. The EU is above all a hub for trade routes of illicit wildlife products.

Although wildlife trafficking is usually associated with African or Asian countries, the European Union also plays an important role - not just in fighting it.

Nature and Environment | 06.01.2017

Besides being a destination and source region for a few illegally traded species, the EU is a key a transit region for endangered species of flora and fauna between continents.

To fight this, the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking represents a crucial step.

"Europe has always been on the frontline to fight against wildlife trafficking - and it will remain so through this new step," Enrico Brivio, the European Commission's spokesperson for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries told DW.

Nature and Environment | 05.10.2016

However, recent seizures of alarming amounts of vulnerable species in countries such as Spain have highlighted the need for greater efforts and stricter measures - along with an increased awareness.

Infografik Tierwelt Routen EU ENG

Europe's part in the game

"People tend to think it is an issue that affects Africa as major source and Asia as major destination - but this is a global problem," Mark Jones, associate director of Born Free Foundation told DW.

Although EU measures to fight criminal activity in developing countries have drawn international attention, the illegal trade of wildlife within the EU remains little known to the general public.

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EU member states serve mainly as transit points for species, particularly between Africa and Asia. According to the commission, almost 2,000 live reptiles were seized at EU borders in 2015 alone, together with corals and ivory, and a long list of mammals and live bird species.

"And this is only the tip of the iceberg," Jones said, pointing out that the known proportion of illegally traded wildlife that is seized represents only around 10 or 15 percent of the total number of wildlife products in illegal trade.

Europaeischer Flussaal - Glasaal

European eels are the main illegally traded species sourced from the EU

EU countries are likewise a source and final destinations for a few species - including the critically endangered European eel.

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Tiny, transparent juveniles, known as glass eels, are illegally exported from Europe and reared to adulthood in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong, where they are prized for consumption or for use in fashion accessories.

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), export and import of this species from and into the EU is not permitted - yet millions of individual eels were seized between 2011 and 2015, according to the World Wildlife Seizures (World WISE) database.

Rhino horn and ivory: from Africa to Europe

Katalin Kecse-Nagy, regional European director for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, explained to DW that Europe's role in illegal trade of iconic species such as rhinoceros and tigers is not as prominent as its role for fish or reptiles.

Regardless, European countries including Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy and Germany are yet transit countries for illegal trade in rhino horn.

And a rhino horn's journey through Europe also sometimes ends there. World WISE shows that Ireland and Czech Republic are among primary destination countries, after Vietnam and China.

Frakreich Zoll entdeckt Koffer voller Elfenbein

Controlling the entrance of illegal products into the EU remains a major challenge

Jones also pointed out that ivory and other elephant products are also very present in the EU, which is the largest single market for legal ivory trade in the world.

He believes legal exports stimulate ivory demand from Asiatic countries and are used to mask illegal trade in ivory products. Whether to ban or legalize ivory trade is hotly debated internationally.

Spain: EU's wildlife trading hub

The 2016 United Nations' World Wildlife Crime Report demonstrates how the Iberian kingdom leads the world in reptile skin seizures, as well as in leopard skin seizures within the EU.

"Spain plays a very important role in the global wildlife trafficking, since it is the main entrance point to trade from South America and from Africa - two major worldwide sources," Luis Suarez, head of biodiversity with WWF Spain, told DW.

The Spanish nature protection service recently seized more than 2,000 dead seahorses headed for China, where they are falsely believed to have medicinal properties. This represents just one of the numerous seizures undertaken every year.

Once the wildlife product reaches Spanish territory, it can move freely all across EU countries via the Schengen Zone. Suarez also maintained that illegal products often end up sold under legal cover within the EU.

Pazifischer Ozean Biodiversität Pazifisches Seepferdchen

Seahorses are a vulnerable species threatened by illegal trade

Shared responsibility among Europeans

The EU Wildlife Action Plan focuses mainly on enhancing greater enforcement of regulations, improved cooperation among member states, and more effective prevention of illegal trade, Brivio explained.

The main challenge remains the coordination of all member states so that they agree on, implement and enforce same rules. If control measures differ from country to country, traffickers will keep looking for the weakest link to exploit.

"The EU can be a force for good," Jones said. "But we still feel there are a lot of gaps in the EU legislation that need to be filled."

Citizens must also share the responsibility, Kecse-Nagy said. Irresponsible tourism and consumption habits contribute as well to illegal trade. People should seek out information on products they purchase, and be more aware of the impact of their actions.

Suarez also supports the involvement of citizens in effective solutions.

"Europeans think of wildlife trafficking as a topic not related to them," he said. "But in reality, we are part of the problem - and we have to convince citizens of this."

The path toward extinction

Demand for rhinoceros horn, mainly across Asia, is driving the species toward extinction. Despite international trade in rhino horn having been banned under CITES since 1977, only around 25,600 rhinos from all five species remain in the wild. In a controversial move, the king of Swaziland will propose to legalize international rhino horn trade at the wildlife conference in Johannesburg.

Ivory driving tragedy

Despite African elephant populations having experienced a catastrophic one-third decline from 2007 to 2015 due mainly to ivory trade, Zimbabwe and Namibia are proposing to legalize their ivory markets - in efforts to reduce demand. Since around 27,000 elephants are estimated to be killed by poachers each year, ivory trade will surely a high-profile discussion at CITES CoP17.

A symbol of wildness

The African lion is not yet considered a threatened species under CITES - however, some groups such as Humane Society International have proposed the species should get increased protection, as there may be as few as 20,000 wild lions left in Africa. This proposal is currently being opposed by numerous countries, including the European Union.

Top of the list

Pangolins have the sad honor of being world's most trafficked wild mammal. Their scales are used in traditional medicine, mainly in China, and are a treasure for poachers. As all eight species of pangolins could be threatened with extinction, some CITES CoP17 participants support the transfer of all species from Appendix II to Appendix I, further restricting trade in the animal.

That nice little shell

Although colorful shells bring a fresh maritime feel to your home, this simple act might be contributing to the extinction of unusual marine invertebrates such as the chambered nautilus. These unique marine animals also have their place among the 62 proposals to be presented at CITES CoP17 - wildlife experts are seeking more protection for the huge snails.

Flying rhino

This astonishing bird has a helmet-like structure on its head that accounts for some 11 percent of its 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) weight. While the bird uses its beak in head-to-head combat with other males, humans use it as carving material. Asia's largest hornbill is already listed on Appendix I, but Indonesia is requesting greater protection of the species and further international cooperation.

Wildlife is also green

Plants are often given less attention when discussing wildlife trade - however, CoP17 is also tackling problems related to legal and illegal logging around the world, which threatens numerous tree species. For instance, commercial demand across Asia for rosewood - a very valuable timber - has fueled a cross-border criminal network - making this endangered species a topic at the CITES conference.

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