The word “poacher” typically brings one clear image to mind. We see a lowlife type of big game hunter who skulks through the African or Asian wilderness, illegally bringing down elephants, tigers, leopards and other rare species for fun or profit.
A new report from the U.K. reminds us that poaching and other wildlife crime come in many forms. Often it’s significantly under-reported, despite the critical harm it does to animals and biodiversity.
Here’s something you might not expect to hear. Criminal gangs are raking in big bucks committing wildlife crimes, according to World Animal Protection (WAP), a British charity with a mission to save animals from needless suffering.
With No Way to Track Wildlife Crime, the Animals Suffer
Surprisingly, according to WAP’s report, the U.K. doesn’t have a consistent way to track and prevent wildlife crime. The most common types of wildlife offenses “still cannot be independently recorded, despite many of them being imprisonable crimes.” WAP charges that U.K. law enforcement authorities are therefore unable to analyze “trends and crime rates, and accurately estimate the true scale of wildlife crime across the U.K.”
In short, there’s a lot of wildlife crime in the U.K. that’s not being reported or investigated. That’s not good news. The report notes that a wide variety of U.K. wildlife is at risk from organized crime, because these criminals know the risk to them is comparatively low:
[S]erious and organised criminals are increasingly viewing wildlife crime as a lucrative source of funds for other illegal activities including drug smuggling, money laundering and even terrorism. Poor detection rates and disproportionately low penalties mean that there are currently few deterrents for those seeking an ‘easy’ way to make a quick profit.
WAP says gangs are actively engaged in — and making money from — “sporting” crimes such as hare coursing and badger-baiting. In addition, there are the standard issue animal crimes such as smuggling rare animal flesh and bodily parts for food, trinkets and “alternative” medicines. The report adds:
This is not just a threat for “exotic” species. There are increasing fears that native protected wild species such as birds of prey, eels and deer, and their parts, may be illegally targeted and exported from the U.K. This is to satisfy a demand for luxury items in the Middle East and Asia.
Even fish species such as carp are not immune from smuggling. Because carp found in England are substantially smaller than elsewhere, there’s an active underground demand for French carp. A single such live fish can weigh over 70 lbs. and command a reported £12,000 ($20,000) inside the U.K.
Wildlife Crime Awareness in the U.K. is Startlingly Low
WAP polled U.K. citizens to determine how many of them knew about the wildlife crime going on in their country. The results surprised and disappointed the group.
“It really brought to life for us how low awareness is in the U.K.; 86% of the public didn’t know that the police had wildlife crime officers,” Alyx Elliott, WAP campaigns manager, told The Guardian. “If they don’t know that – if they don’t know that this is a crime – then the big worry is that they won’t be reporting it.”
Shockingly, although every U.K. police force has a Wildlife Crime Officer of some type, the job is not considered a “formal” one. Most of these officers get no help or resources and must work on wildlife crime issues in their spare time. WAP believes this is unacceptable. Most animal lovers would heartily agree.
It‘s Not Just Organized Crime, Either
Lest you get the impression that the problem of wildlife crime is solely tied to gang activity, it’s not. Everyday people are sometimes caught doing all manner of illegal things:
- Poisoning squirrels, foxes and other “nuisance” species
- Poaching deer with a crossbow
- Killing a swan for its meat
- Erecting electric fences to kill foxes
- Eel fishing
- Fox baiting
- Shooting at birds and foxes with air rifles
- Stomping on ducks
These crimes are terrible, but only a fraction of them are discovered and meaningfully dealt with. With that in mind, what WAP seeks is twofold. It wants harsher penalties for wildlife crimes and a more comprehensive and consistent approach to the problem by law enforcement.
“This report shows us that, far too often, people view our wildlife as some common reserve or resource into which they can dip, either for their amusement or profit,” wrote WAP celebrity backers Stephen Fry, Deborah Meaden and Charliote Uhlenbroek in an open letter responding to this report.
“[T]he public has a hugely powerful role in playing its part – a potential army of eyes and ears who can report and watch out for people engaged in this sort of soulless activity, many of whom we know are already engaged in other types of criminality.”
That’s just as true in the United States as it is in the United Kingdom. Those of us who care what happens to animals can do our part every day. Keep an eye open to what’s happening around you. Pay attention to unusual activity involving animals. Report the wildlife crimes you see. Lobby your politicians to enact stricter laws.
Wishing things were better will not make it so. Doing something will.
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