Britain’s world-leading police unit dedicated to fighting wildlife crime, which had been threatened with closure, has been given a last minute reprieve and will continue operations until at least 2020.
Environment minister Rory Stewart has committed the Government to £1.2m in funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit over the next four years.
The unit’s current round of funding had been due to run this month, and conservationists had expressed dismay over the Government’s failure to commit to continued support.
In a statement to MPs, Mr Stewart praised the NWCU’s “important role” in combatting both animal cruelty and the international trade in illegal animal parts.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Home Office will each provide the NWCU with £136,000 a year for the next four years, he said. It will also receive an additional £29,000 to combat wildlife crime conducted online.
Chief Inspector Martin Sims, head of the NWCU, told The Independent that the funding represented “a commitment to tackle wildlife crime and to give our staff more long-term job security.”
NWCU works closely with Interpol to combat the illegal wildlife trade, which is estimated to be worth up to £14bn a year. Britain is a hub for the trade, investigators say, and in 2015 alone the NWCU orchestrated the seizure of more than 400 items banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
It also helps coordinate the work of police forces around the country combatting domestic wildlife crimes such as hare coursing and the persecution of birds of prey.
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In a written statement to MPs, Mr Stewart said the new funding would give the Unit “significant financial stability and enable their vital work to continue until at least 2020.”
But Alex Cunningham, Labour’s shadow minister for the natural environment, said that leaving the announcement so late had “severely compromised” the work of the Unit.
“Like the police budget, funding for the Unit has not been protected in real-terms,” he said. “With over 18,000 police officers lost already under David Cameron, the National Wildlife Crime Unit will find itself having to do more with less if it is to continue its success in tackling wildlife crime.”
Josh Kaile, from the charity World Animal Protection, which has led the campaign to save the Unit, said the announcement of new funding was “fantastic news for British wildlife”.