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Wildlife cybercrime is in police’s sights, but wildlife crime underworld remains mostly beneath the radar

Our 2019 Annual Wildlife Crime Report gives a snapshot picture of the state of wildlife crimes across England and Wales

6 November 2020

Wildlife and Countryside Link and Wales Environment Link’s latest report on wildlife crime across England and Wales reveals positive progress in identifying and tackling hi-tech online criminals who are harming our wildlife.[1] Yet centuries old hunting, trapping, and poisoning practices, and smuggling of illegal wildlife goods, are still widespread, and exacting a heavy penalty for nature, warn conservation experts.

Activity on wildlife cybercrime (which can include illegal hunting and trapping coordination, gambling on live-stream cruelty such as badger and dog fights, and the online sale of rare protected species) has ramped up over the last year. Online initiatives from police and wildlife organisations have led to more tips from the public, arrests, and rescues of animals - such as dogs injured in badger-baiting. The creation of a new Cyber Enabled Wildlife Crime Priority Delivery Group, led by the police National Wildlife Crime Unit, has been hailed by conservationists as a major step forward in improving prevention, intelligence and enforcement.

Yet many wildlife crimes continue to be unwitnessed or unreported and go unpunished. A shocking array of wildlife including bats, birds, badgers, plants, hares, deer, fish, seals, dolphins, amphibians and reptiles, and more, are harmed at the hands of hunters, poachers, criminals, and even normally law-abiding members of the public every year. [2] Overall levels of reported wildlife crimes have changed very little in the four years since our annual report was first published, with 3800 incidents reported in 2019 compared to 4288 in 2016.

Convictions remain shockingly low, with just 10 people convicted of wildlife crimes in 2019 (other than convictions relating to fisheries crimes).

Dr Richard Benwell CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link said: ‘The wildlife crime underworld in Britain remains rampant. Our figures are just a snapshot of the number of animals being illegally hurt and killed every single day, sometimes for sport, sometimes for profit, sometimes in sheer callousness. Steps forward in tackling the growing online world of wildlife crime are very welcome. But overall a lack of adequate police recording and resourcing, low levels of prosecutions and inadequate sentencing are leaving our wildlife without the protection it needs.’

Martin Sims of the League Against Cruel Sports and Chair of Link’s Wildlife Crime Working Group, said: ‘It seems incredible in our digital age that our police forces can’t just call up the data they need to effectively tackle wildlife crime at the touch of a button. While the police are cracking down on wildlife cyber criminals more effectively now, their own electronic data on wildlife crimes is decades behind where it should be. We need to bring the fight against wildlife crime into the 21st century and ensure police have the resources they need to punish those who are harming our natural world.’

Paul De Ornellas, Chief Wildlife Adviser at WWF-UK said: “In recent years the UK has played a significant role in focusing global attention on the illegal wildlife trade. This report clearly shows that wildlife crime, including links to illicit wildlife trade internationally, is happening here at home, with a concerning increase in cybercrime and the use of major UK airports by traffickers. To continue to show global leadership, the government must do more to address IWT in its own backyard, as well as overseas”

Additional quotes from the RSPCA, the National Trust and Plantlife can be found here

The biggest barrier to tackling wildlife crime remains the lack of recording, reporting, and resourcing allocated to these crimes by the police and Home Office. Wildlife cybercrime is believed to be extensive, but, as with many types of wildlife crime, it is not recorded in any meaningful way, due in large part to the absence of dedicated police wildlife crime reporting codes. So it is impossible to assess patterns and levels of wildlife crimes accurately and effectively target resources. There is a National Wildlife Crime Unit within the police, but this has been significantly underfunded for years and is currently going through an opaque restructuring process.

While fisheries crimes continue to receive low sentencing (and are a target for organised crime for this reason), the data, prosecution and conviction rates for fisheries crimes are notably better than for other types of wildlife crime. The main reason for this is that these crimes are tackled by a well-resourced section of the Environment Agency (in England) and Natural Resources Wales, funded by fishing licence fees. The fact that in 2019 2642 fisheries crimes were reported (more than double the number of all types of wildlife crime we report on combined) and 1992 people were convicted (compared to just 10 for other crimes) puts into stark relief the difference that adequate resourcing can make.

To help ensure that wildlife across England and Wales are adequately protected, conservation groups are calling on the Home Office and the Police to:

  • Ensure wildlife crimes are recorded and reported on effectively – with long-promised dedicated wildlife crime recording codes put into place urgently
  • Create a new Wildlife Crime Strategy with recording, reporting and resourcing at its heart, backed up by an action plan for the delivery of key targets
  • Provide transparency over changes to the police’s National Wildlife Crime Unit – including a consultation on funding, form and function to ensure this coordination body is better-resourced and fit for purpose
  • Keep up the momentum on wildlife cybercrime – by ensuring funding is in place to increase effectiveness through more dedicated officers to tackle the growth in online coordination and facilitation of wildlife crimes.
  • Deliver effective guidance and training on wildlife crimes for police officers through online knowledge and training hubs and tying local police in to regional wildlife enforcement hubs,
  • Strengthen the network of wildlife crime experts within the Crown Prosecution Service and ensure they are actively available to inform and support police officers

    ENDS

    Notes to Editors:

    1. Wildlife and Countryside Link is the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, bringing together 57 organisations to use their strong joint voice for the protection of nature. Wales Environment Link is a network of environmental, countryside and heritage non-governmental organisations with an all-Wales remit. Both operate as part of a UK-wide coalition - Environment Links UK. The calls in the Wildlife Crime Annual Report 2019 are supported by: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, Badger Trust, Bat Conservation Trust, Born Free Foundation, Buglife, Humane Society International UK, Institute of Fisheries Management, League Against Cruel Sports, the National Trust, Naturewatch Foundation, Plantlife, RSPB, the RSPCA, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Wild Justice, WWF-UK, Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

    2.The sorts of ‘household wildlife crimes’ committed can include killing or harming bats, birds or other wildlife nesting in lofts, poisoning or trapping animals causing damage to gardens, and chasing or otherwise disturbing animals such as seals, dolphins, or protected birds.

    Please see Table 1 below for Wildlife crime figures 2016-2019. Please note, these figures are likely to be a substantial underestimate of wildlife crime levels, dueto the absence of government and police data (with no wildlife crime reportingcode), the fact that figures on some types of offences are not collected by these NGOs, and that some crimes are less visible and therefore more likely to go unreported.

    This report does not claim to provide a complete overview of wildlife crime in England and Wales. These figures are only of reported incidents our members are aware of which will by no means be all incidents that are reported to the police. But without a wildlife crime specific reporting code being used by the police it is impossible to calculate the actual figures. There are also other types of wildlife crime that do not fall within the remit of our membership, such as some types of poaching.

    *Investigation ongoing
    ** There is not enough data for an exact figure, but most cases involving birds of prey are referred to the police.