The Government has been given a comprehensive plan to tackle wildlife crime – will it implement it?

Martin Sims, Chair of Link's Wildlife Crime Working Group, highlights a major new report on UK wildlife crime and calls for swift implementation of its recommendations.

A Blog from Wildlife and Countryside Link

Just before Christmas, a remarkable wildlife crime document was published on the Defra website. Amidst rising fears of the Omnicom wave and media and political focus on ‘partygate’, the document went largely unnoticed, despite its contents. In the months since, it has remained under the radar – a poor fate for the most significant wildlife crime intervention in decades. 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report ‘Wildlife and Forest Crime Analytic Toolkit Report: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ amounts to a comprehensive blueprint for tackling wildlife crime in the UK. Over 200 pages and through 72 separate recommendations, covering legislation, enforcement, prosecution, sentencing and monitoring, the report sets out how more wildlife can be protected from the suffering and species losses inflicted by wildlife criminals.

The scope of the report reflects the global expertise of the team behind it. UNODC is the crime prevention office for the United Nations, drawing on the resources and experience of all members nations to be better equip governments to tackle crime. One of the ways it does this is through its International Consortium on Combatting Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) Wildlife and Forest Crime Analytic Toolkit, designed to help governments evaluate and improve their systems for combatting wildlife crime. In 2018 the UK Government invited UNODC to apply its ICCWC Toolkit to the UK – December’s report is the result of that exercise. The detailed nature of the report reflects the level of access the ICCWC team were granted, months of engagement with civil servants, police officers and civil society (including many Link Wildlife Crime Group members) led to the published recommendations.

Having arranged this exercise in system-strengthening, and co-operated fully with the ICCWC team, the response of the UK Government to the recommendations has been curiously muted. The report was completed and submitted by the IWCC team in August, but was not published until just before Christmas – and then just as a link in news piece on the Defra website focused on praising the UK’s current approach to wildlife crime. The 72 recommendations for improvements were dealt with in one line ‘‘The Government will now consider the recommendations to ensure our legislation and enforcement of wildlife crime is as strong as it can be’’. Given the self-congratulatory focus of the piece and the lack of substantive new commitments in it, it is perhaps no surprise that no mainstream newspaper reported on the UNODC report. 

Valiant attempts since then by a number of MPs to gain further information about how and when the recommendations are to be considered more have not yielded much. In response to one parliamentary question asking for a clear timetable for the Government’s response to the recommendations, the Minister replied: ‘‘Defra is reviewing the assessment and will monitor action against the report’s recommendations where they apply to the UK government to identify where we can act with stakeholders to strengthen the UK’s approach’’. Open ended assessments do not a detailed timetable make. Last week’s Nature Recovery Green Paper provided another opportunity to publish such a timetable, but alas – aside from some warm words of intent to do more to tackle wildlife crime – the UNODC report was not mentioned. 

In consigning the UNODC report to the dustiest of shelves, the Government is hiding its light under a bushel. The Government deserves huge credit for inviting UNODC to apply the toolkit in the first place, and much of the report rightly praises the UK for its international work on wildlife crime, and for supporting the world-leading work of the National Wildlife Crime Unit at home. Yet this commendable progress in some areas has to be balanced against a need to improve in others. There are blindspots in the UK’s approach to wildlife crime, which the report sets out in detail. 

Foremost among them is a failing that Link has highlighted for years – the fact that most wildlife crimes are not recorded by the Home Office, as they lack what it known as ‘notifiable status’. The resulting major data gaps makes it difficult for police forces to gauge the true extent and characteristics of wildlife crime and to plan strategically to address it. In the words of the UNODC report:
‘‘Wildlife crime data exists in some format at each point of the criminal justice system in administrative statistics; however, it is scattered, varied, and often provides an incomplete picture of the scale, variability, and impact of these offences…That wildlife crimes are not recordable and notifiable across the UK means that wildlife crime statistics lack even the basic elements of the aforementioned crime recording ‘best practices’ to adequately measure the scale and nature’’

Accordingly, recommendation 23 of the report is to ‘‘make all wildlife crimes recordable and notifiable offences’’

Other key areas for attention highlighted by the report include updating the legislation used to prosecute wildlife crime, granting permanent funding to the National Wildlife Crime Unit and increasing the number of qualified police investigators undertaking wildlife crime investigations. 

A considered approach to implementing the UNODC report could see these high priority, fundamental recommendations implemented first, contributing to the success of the remainder, which could be implemented in planned stages. The report is a huge boon for the UK, setting out exactly how wildlife crime can be consigned to the past in which it belongs, it is now for the Government to follow this blueprint. The gains from doing so will be considerable, from the animal welfare benefits of preventing the suffering caused by illegal hunting, to contributing to 2030 nature recovery targets by protecting vulnerable animal and plant species, all the way through to protecting the public from the wildlife criminals that frequently commit crimes against human life and property in tandem to hurting animals.

This is why, over six months on from the completion of the UNODC report, the Link Wildlife Crime Group is calling on the Government to commit to a detailed timetable for its progression. Thanks to the UNODC, and the 2018 decision to invite them in, we now have a strategy to meaningfully tackle wildlife crime – now is the time to implement it.

Martin Sims is Director of Investigations at League of Cruel Sports and is Chair of the Link Wildlife Crime Group

Readers can take action to urge the Government to implement the UNODC recommendation to make wildlife crimes notifiable by taking part in Naturewatch Foundation’s ‘Make Wildlife Count’ campaign here.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.