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EU launches unprecedented crackdown on wildlife trafficking

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These tusks were part of around three tons of illegal ivory seized by French customs agents in 2014.   © Reuters

BRUSSELS -- In February 2014, Portuguese airport security agents seized two shipments of endangered glass eels totaling 272kg and worth roughly 400,000 euros from an aircraft on its way to mainland China. Less than a year later in January 2015, authorities in Bulgaria found 37kg of the same type of eels inside the luggage of two Chinese citizens arriving from Spain at the airport in Sofia. Then in May 2015, another seizure was recorded, this time at France's Roissy Airport outside Paris. Inside the container was 136.6kg of raw ivory destined for Vietnam.

     Huge volumes of illegally trafficked wildlife and wildlife parts -- in the form of ivory, rhino horns, pangolin scales, dead seahorses and much more -- pass through European transit points every year as they make their way between Africa and Asia. Between 2011 and 2014, European Union member states reported seizures of approximately 4,500 ivory items including tusks, carvings, and individual pieces, most of which were in transit at ports, airports and post offices en route to destinations in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam, according to the European Commission, the EU's executive branch.

     With poaching activities in Africa increasing and a growing body of evidence emerging that the profits of wildlife trafficking are financing militias and terrorist groups in Africa, the Commission on Friday will launch an "action plan" aimed at reinvigorating Europe's effort to act as a single unit when trying to fight against the problem.

     The final draft of the plan, seen by the Nikkei Asian Review, states that while there are already strict rules in place on the trading of endangered species and the criminalizing of the illegal wildlife trade, "there are great differences in the level of implementation and enforcement of these instruments amongst the different member states" of the EU.

     The Commission therefore aims to develop new guidelines by the end of 2016 on suspending the export of old ivory items from EU countries, and to provide more financial assistance to countries most affected by wildlife trafficking, according to the draft plan. Other ideas in the plan include a call -- albeit non-binding -- for all member states to review their national laws to ensure they treat wildlife trafficking as a serious crime punishable by a jail sentence of at least four years.

     Currently only 16 out of 28 member states meet this requirement while between February 2013 and December 2014 -- the latest years for which figures are available -- only 11 countries, including the U.K., the Netherlands, Italy, France, and Spain, actually handed down sentences to wildlife trafficking offenders.

Trade policies as a weapon

The EU's plan recommends that Brussels should use the EU's trade policies to pressure countries outside the EU to do more in terms of curbing the flow of illegally trafficked wildlife, and urges the European Council, which represents individual governments of the EU, to endorse the plan in coming months.

     "It's really something that needs to be implemented by EU actors and by member states and it has to be done jointly. All of this can only be done if we have member states on board and if we have their political support," said an EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

     The U.S. has already used trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with 11 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region to threaten trade sanctions for the illegal trafficking of species like rhinos, sharks, and pangolins. 

     While the Commission's new plan stops short of proposing any new legislation or legally binding measures for countries in the 28-member bloc, the move follows in the footsteps of similar moves by the U.S. Last year, Washington launched an implementation plan for ending the illicit trade of wildlife. And in 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order that established a wildlife task force and advisory council of non-government experts charged with developing proposals for curbing wildlife trafficking with measures such as improving enforcement, reducing demand and cooperating more closely with other governments.

     In Europe, the shock of the Nov. 15 terrorist attacks in Paris and two United Nations Security Council resolutions from last year that linked the illegal trafficking of wildlife to the Lord's Resistance Army in the Central African Republic and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have helped the renewed push to crack down on any activities that could help finance militias and terrorist groups. There have also been allegations that groups such as Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group based in Nigeria, and Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based group aligned with al-Qaida, have also been involved in wildlife trafficking, said the EU official.

     A separate EU action plan launched on Feb. 2 and spearheaded by the French government in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, proposes stepping up EU support for Southeast Asian countries to fight illegal wildlife trafficking.

     Despite the proactive approach on paper, EU member countries have been criticized by wildlife advocates and activists for their lack of concrete commitment to the cause. "These criminal groups are quietly organized and... the only way for governments to react is to get organized themselves," said Susan Lieberman, vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society. "We're seeing increasing levels of trafficking in illegal wildlife, and it's organizations operating between Africa and Asia who are on the bandwagon."

     Lieberman warned that Europe would struggle to eradicate wildlife trafficking unless all 28 member states in the region took the issue more seriously. "This is an effort to get all 28 member states together and see what they can do," she said referring to the Commission's action plan. "If you're a criminal you are not going to go to the country that is really good at making arrests...We need consistency across all the EU member states."

     Commission officials admit that the EU's existing rules on the trading of endangered species -- found in a directive on the Protection of the Environment Through Criminal Law -- are being implemented at various speeds across the EU. The Commission will, therefore, propose on Friday that the measures in the new plan are not only endorsed by the European Council but that the EU's executive body will review implementation of the plan after five years.

     If countries repeatedly fail to implement the plan, according to one proposal, the Commission could come forward with infringement procedures during which a litigation process could be opened up against the member states in question.

Getting Asia on board

The EU also has a huge job in convincing destination countries in Asia -- many of which suffer high levels of corruption and impunity -- to bust criminal gangs in their own countries. In Laos, the sparsely populated, communist Southeast Asian state, authorities have so far failed to tackle the wildlife trafficking network of Vixay Keosavang, an alleged trafficking kingpin, for whom the U.S. has offered a $1m reward for any information that may lead to the dismantling of his activities.

     EU officials told the Asian Nikkei Review that a well organized criminal group in Vietnam has also been identified operating in the Czech Republic. The network hired "pseudo-hunters" bringing back rhinoceros trophies from South Africa to the Czech Republic and Slovakia before subsequently smuggling them out of the EU to Vietnam. In the first seven months of 2014, ivory was seized on five occasions -- three times at the Prague airport, and twice at the Frankfurt airport -- from Vietnamese nationals living in the Czech Republic and travelling to Vietnam.

     Officials explained that Vietnamese nationals would go to South Africa and pose as hunters in order to get licenses and eventually kill rhinos."It's clearly very organized and the South Africans are now much more careful in checking on anyone with Vietnamese nationality. But now of course they've been using people with other nationalities to get hunting licenses, who are then hired by the Vietnamese network," the EU official said. "These people are not stupid."

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