The environment ministers of the world's seven leading economies and Russia, meeting at Leeds Castle, Kent, will today recommend firm measures to increase the monitoring and enforcement of international treaties banning the trade. Their proposals will be taken up by the leaders of their countries at the rich nations' summit in Birmingham in May.
The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who is chairing the conference, said yesterday: "The scale of the crisis is phenomenal. We need to be tough on the catching, tough on the people who commit the crime, and tough on the people who buy the things. There's an awful lot to be done, but we will be working very hard on it."
He said the countries should co-operate in enforcing the treaties, pooling scientific knowledge on how to combat the crime and in setting up a clearing house of information. The ministers - from Britain, the USA, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia - heard reports of the growth of the smuggling of toxic waste, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which destroy the ozone layer, and endangered species and products made from them. They did not address two other major areas of environmental crime, both more politically sensitive: illegal trade in timber and illegal fishing, including whaling.
The growth in crime is being fuelled by the erosion of border controls as trade is increasingly liberalised, and the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the rise of the Russian Mafia. The Italian environment minister, Eduardo Ronchi, said that international police inquiries were finding evidence that the Russian Mafia and Italian Comorra were increasingly moving into environmental crime, particularly the smuggling and dumping of toxic waste.
Much of the waste comes from the former Soviet bloc and is illegally exported to African and Asian countries, despite an international ban. Experts believe that some legitimate European waste companies are becoming involved in the trade, and there are fears that the Italian Mafia may start dealing in Russian nuclear waste.
Russia is also at the centre of the smuggling of CFCs mainly into the US and the European Union. Duncan Brack, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, estimates that 15 per cent of all CFCs now in use have been smuggled.
The illegal wildlife trade is reckoned to be worth at least $5bn a year and is threatening endangered species including the tiger and the rhinoceros.
Illegal fishing - through, for example, using banned driftnets, landing undersized fish, or misreporting catches - is also rife. By one estimate, two-fifths of the total catch of the Scottish fishing fleet may be illegal. But the most valuable illegal trade of all is probably in timber, which is thought to be worth up to $15bn a year. It has been estimated that at least one-third of logging in Malaysia is illegal.