It is time to change the regulations on Wildlife Trade

The Control of Trade in Endangered Species Regulations 2009 (COTES) are currently being reviewed following a consultation by Defra.  It is a critical time for their development since the last regulation was passed, as poaching has massively increased, pushing more species to the brink of extinction. 

The thing with any regulation is trying to keep up to date with the real world, while providing enforcement officials with the tools to tackle illegal activity, so this is a challenge for Defra.  How can they future proof these new regulations? 

In recent years we have seen a shift in the use of social media and websites trading in endangered species, sometimes cutting out the middle man.  This form of trading is often seen as low risk and difficult to detect and any new enforcement regulation from Defra needs to consider how we tackle cybercrime. 

The government has just announced it will fund the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) for a further four years. What is important from an internet trade perspective is that they also announced they will “provide the Unit with up to £29,000 a year over the next four years for specific work to tackle wildlife crime conducted online, as a developing area of global criminal activity.”

IFAW have been working with enforcers to ensure they prioritise wildlife cybercrime for a number of years, while simultaneously encouraging the government to support their efforts in this area. So the recent announcement is good news, with the government committing real resources and money to tackle this burgeoning area of wildlife crime.

IFAW’s report Wanted –Dead or Alive, exposing online wildlife trade, found that a total of 33,006 endangered animals and wildlife products were available for sale in 9,482 advertisements estimated to be worth a minimum of US$10,708,137 over a period of six weeks. The report investigated the trade in endangered wildlife taking place on 280 online marketplaces in 16 countries. This small window of research just gives a tiny snapshot of what is going on.

The real rub comes when enforcers and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) try tackling these crimes head on. For this reason we need a strong COTES regulation that puts cybercrime within the new statutory instrument, to make sure the handcuffs are taken off enforcers and placed firmly on the criminals. 

The UK government has a unique opportunity to include a significant change.  The Statutory Instrument (SI) that would make this law is yet to be put before Parliament, but we are very encouraged that the Government say the SI will include “a provision to require the number of the relevant Article 10 certificate, where one has been issued, in any advertisement for sale of a specimen in order to clarify the legality of products offered for sale, in particular over the internet.”
Without clauses like this we would be leaving loopholes in the regulations, which would allow this trade to flourish online. 

Regulation is just one key point that needs to be considered. The next is what happens when a case gets to court? To have a truly holistic approach you need enforcement staff, resources, strong regulations and then good sentencing guidance in the courts to make sure criminals are getting the right level of punishment for these serious offences. 

Defra must urgently work with the Ministry of Justice in developing new and revised sentencing guidance on illegal wildlife trade, which also covers cybercrime. This needs to appear at the same time that new COTES regulations are published.  This way we will then have a robust set of regulations and good guidance to make sure we stop the illegal wildlife trade and help shut down an important global market place within the UK.    

By David Cowdrey
Head of Policy & Campaigns IFAW UK