By Stefano A. Dejak

Wildlife populations around the world will decline by 67 per cent by 2020 unless action is taken, according to the 2016 edition of the Living Planet Report which was published in October by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative forms of organised crime, with profits from this often bloody form of trade estimated at 20 billion Euros. This can only be stopped through a measured and targeted global response.

The European Union (EU) is working with organisations such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the African Elephant Fund to support efforts to protect wildlife in Africa.

At the EU headquarters in Brussels, environment ministers have agreed to a plan that would for the first time define illegal wildlife trafficking as a serious crime. The plan aims to prevent trafficking, reduce supply and demand for illegal products, toughen existing laws, combat organised crime, and boost cooperation between countries.

The plan comprises a series of wildlife management proposals whose budgets have been approved by the European Union’s Member States.

Top of the list of actions is addressing the root causes that lead to the flourishing of this illegal trade. A crucial component is providing funding support to African countries and promoting projects to find alternative sources of income for local people.

This includes ensuring that rural communities in source countries are engaged in wildlife conservation, and that they benefit more from it. The European Union is also supporting efforts to enforce existing rules to combat wildlife trafficking more effectively, and setting up more robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms.

But why is the European Union taking it upon itself to try and solve a problem happening thousands of miles away? Poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking have been linked to other forms of crime such as illegal logging which accounts for up to 30 per cent of the global timber trade and contributes to more than 50 per cent of tropical deforestation in Central Africa, the Amazon and South East Asia.

“Poaching threatens our investments in these countries,” said Karmenu Vella, the European Union’s Commissioner for Environment, Maritime and Fisheries, during a recent visit to Kenya. “This threatens nature, biodiversity and lives. The commitment has got to be there from the President down to the people.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) brings together 181 countries and international organisations to regulate trade in over 35,000 species of plants and animals. At the CITES conference in Johannesburg earlier this year the European Union’s proposals were adopted, either by consensus or with a large majority, in favour of tighter restrictions or full bans on the trade of species such as pangolins, rosewood, shark and ray species, lizards and geckos. The conference also agreed on stricter rules for trophy hunting, as well as a much stronger focus on corruption associated to wildlife trafficking.

One of the European Union’s priorities at the CITES conference was to persuade the international community to strengthen its efforts to stop ivory trafficking. This would mean stepping up enforcement, addressing corruption, supporting local communities and reducing the demand for illegal wildlife products. The European Union fully supports the existing ban on international trade in elephant ivory and opposed proposals at the CITES conference for a resumption of international ivory trade.

The European Union is also working with the governments of nearly 30 African countries to help strengthen their policy-making and administration of wildlife conservation, providing funds for such work in Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“Corruption remains at the heart of wildlife trafficking in the range, transit and destination countries,” says Commissioner Vella. “We have to figure out a way to kill the source, the demand and the market.”

Stefano A. Dejak is the European Union Ambassador to Kenya