Why we must do more to stop wildlife crime

Funding for the Wildlife Crime Unit is under threat

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The Independent Online

Will it surprise you if I tell you that wildlife crime now ranks as the fourth biggest illegal trade after drugs, counterfeiting and people, in terms of profits?

It is a global economic crime perpetrated often by criminal organisations and it is linked to the illegal trafficking of drugs, people and even to terrorism. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime calculated in 2011 that the total value of the illegal global wildlife trade was between $8bn to $10bn annually (excluding timber and marine wildlife).

London is a centre for criminals who abuse and traffic wildlife, which is why it's obvious that the Government, the Metropolitan Police and the Mayor of London should take this issue seriously. They don’t. Since I was elected to the London Assembly I have been lobbying the Met to properly fund and resource its Wildlife Crime Unit, but senior officers just don’t see it as core policing and its funding has been reduced by the Met, with the occasional threat of scrapping it altogether.

Now, yet again, the funding for this unit is under serious threat. That’s in spite of the fact that the unit does a huge amount of good work and gets the Met rare positive media coverage. Since 2012 the Wildlife Crime Unit has been partially funded by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). The £100,000 a year of extra funding has ensured two critical staff posts, which have increased the effectiveness of the unit, and provided a small operational budget. However this funding will come to an end in April 2014.

The work the Wildlife Crime Unit does with the support of WSPA is fantastic, but it should not be left to charities to step in to enforce the law, especially against organised crime. It is one thing for a charity to start something off to demonstrate what can be achieved, but quite another to fully fund it.

The officers and staff need to concentrate on stopping the illegal trade of animals and the acts of harm perpetrated against them, rather than spending each year worrying their unit may be disbanded because of a lack of funding. The London Assembly united behind a motion calling on the Mayor to ensure long term funding for this unit. In my view, this area is core policing and should be treated as a priority.

Apart from wildlife crime generating lots of money for criminal gangs, the trade of endangered species is threatening some of the planet’s most iconic animals with extinction: for example, elephants, rhinos and tigers. As well as the illegal trade of animals, wildlife crime also covers acts of harm to local wildlife such as swans, deer and birds. This is a global problem which survives by exploiting local people and taking advantage of lax enforcement.

Whether it’s animals, insects, birds or bees, these are all creatures that enable us to live on this planet, but who have a right to life for their own survival. Respect for our environment and its ecology is necessary for us to survive, plus I think any human act that abuses wildlife is a bad reflection on us all.

I know money is tight and that in policing there are always competing priorities. Of course £100,000 sounds a lot of money but in the context of a global illegal trade with an estimated value of $19billion, it starts to look like money well spent. It is essential that we do what we can to enforce the laws we have and to drive those criminals, who make millions by exploiting animals, out of business. If we don’t, then we must account to future generations on how we allowed criminal organisations to drive whole species to extinction.