UK’s wildlife crime sentences ‘no deterrent’, says UN

A UK-wide approach to sentencing wildlife crime is needed as current practice ‘does not appear to present any sort of deterrent’, says a report from a United Nations body.

The deliberate destruction of a soprano pipistrelle bat roost resulted in the UK's largest ever penalty for wildlife crime. Photograph: Per Grunditz / EyeEm / Gettty Images

As things stand, there are no sentencing guidelines in place in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland for wildlife crime – whether importing ivory or taking the eggs of rare birds – and the development of such guidance is considered to be a low priority by the responsible bodies, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says. The end result is that sentences that are generally “greeted with disappointment” by conservationists, its report adds.

In response, a “countrywide uniform approach to sentencing is required”, led by the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales, Scotland’s specialist wildlife crime team and Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service, according to  the report, published on Friday.

While it makes many criticisms, UNODC does describe the UK as a “global leader” in the fight against wildlife trafficking, through calling for tougher measures globally and awarding grants to build legislative and law enforcement capacity abroad. The body praises the UK’s “overarching policing structures and strategies to address wildlife crime”, such as a centralised intelligence hub and a “fruitful partnership with civil society”. Together, they “could well be described as international best practice”, an observation that DEFRA leapt on.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said the report, “recognises the UK’s global leadership in fighting wildlife and forestry crime. We invited the UN to undertake this analysis and we are proud to be the first G7 country to request this assessment. There is always more we can do to tackle this abhorrent trade and we will carefully consider all of the UN’s recommendations to help us build on the positive progress we have already made to tackle this issue.”

Nevertheless, the report is clear that improvements are required. “Beyond the structure, however, there remain issues that need to be addressed. Data management, recordable offences, legislative issues, training, funding, a lack of prosecutorial and judicial expertise, and according to some of the interviewees traditional practices all make for an enforcement response with room for improvement,” it says.

The UN says that trafficking of fauna and flora generates at $7-23bn of illicit cash each year. But UK enforcement pays more attention to domestic and forestry crime, says the report, though this is partly because few CITES-listed species live in the British Isles. Nevertheless, “the eel trade is still a key concern”, as are reports of peregrine falcon eggs leaving the country.

The report notes:

  • DEFRA has the equivalent of only one and a half full time staff working on wildlife crime issues.

  • DEFRA is not practising what it preaches, in regard to strict liability for wildlife offences. In many countries, some with UK government funding to support such legislation, possession of items banned under CITES is an offence subject to hefty penalties. In contrast, under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species Regulations 2018, proof of intent to supply or perform some other criminal act must be established. “This has led to situations in which raw ivory tusks had to be returned to owners who are being investigated for other wildlife offences,” the report states. It adds that the law also creates “a heavy administrative burden”.

  • The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and its Scottish equivalent have hampered investigations. The laws restrict the likes of in-person surveillance and communications interception, to “detecting serious crime”. This essentially means crimes likely to result in a prison term of three years or more, for an adult with no prior convictions, or which “involves the use of violence, results in substantial financial gain or is conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose”. Wildlife crimes do not generally meet these tests and even when they do, advanced investigative techniques are rarely exercised, says the report.

  • Most police investigating wildlife crime are uniformed officers, rather than trained detectives. A lack of resources has meant they are having to work on wildlife crime cases in their own time, “and having to justify why they are investigating wildlife crime cases at all. This is despite an apparent unified recognition that wildlife crime is important,” says the report.

  • Prosecutions can be left in the hands of inexperienced counsel due to the lack of dedicated public prosecutors.

  • The leadership of the National Wildlife Crime Unit “has to continuously fight for the Units’ very existence”, due to having only annual rather than multi-year funding, says UNODC. The report contrasts the budget of £580,000, which “represents incredible value for money”, with the more than £4.5m awarded for overseas capacity building. “While this fund is highly applauded and desperately needed, the NWCU is also to be highly applauded and is just as needed within the UK,” it adds.

The report makes 65 detailed recommendations, among them resurrecting the Law Commission’s draft wildlife crime bill of 2015, increasing the number of CITES officers at Heathrow airport and Felixstowe container port and training more police officers to investigate wildlife crime. It also backs directly funding the work of NGOs such as the Bat Conservation Trust, which operates a helpline offering advice and guidance on bat welfare and offences.