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Illegal trade in wildlife

International trade in wildlife is big business, estimated to be worth billions of US dollars worldwide.  Many species that are threatened by trade are protected through international agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which aims to make sure  trade in wildlife is  both  legal and sustainable. However, where international trade in a certain species is restricted or even banned, for the most endangered species, illegal trade will take place if the demand is still there. This threatens the very survival of the species concerned and is one of the key threats to biodiversity.  

The case for government action

The government is committed to protecting wildlife to halt the loss of biodiversity, and as illegal trade undermines the protection given to threatened species through international agreements like CITES this government is committed to tackling smuggling and illegal trade in wildlife.

Latest news

Operation RAMP

In September/October 2010 the UK took part in a worldwide operation called Operation RAMP. Co-ordinated by INTERPOL, is took place in 51 countries across five continents against the illegal trade in reptiles and amphibians. It has resulted in arrests worldwide as well as the seizure of thousands of animals and illicit products worth more than €25 million.

Operation TRAM

In February 2010 the UK took part in an international operation called Operation TRAM. Co-ordinated by INTERPOL, it targeted the illegal trade in traditional medicines containing protected wildlife products.  It resulted in a series of arrests worldwide and the seizure of thousands of illegal medicines worth more than €10 million.

In the UK the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), UK Border Agency, police forces across the UK and Animal Health worked together on both Operation TRAM and Operation RAMP.

Key facts and figures

  • 175 countries are signed up to CITES
  • 34,000 species plants and animal protected by CITES
  • UK legal trade in CITES specimens worth  £10-50 million per annum

For specific information on illegal trade seizures and prosecutions:

The current situation and background

The UK takes an active role in global negotiations through the CITES to strengthen enforcement of CITES controls and to tackle illegal trade.

To complement the work of CITES at a global level the UK also currently Chairs the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) which aims to raise the political profile of wildlife crime.

Decisions taken by CITES at a global level are implemented and enforced at an EU level through EU Wildlife Trade Regulations. Member States regularly meet in Brussels to specifically discuss illegal trade and enforcement issues.

The EU Wildlife Trade Regulations are directly applicable as law in the UK.  The UK Border Agency is responsible for enforcement at our borders and Police forces are responsible for enforcement within the UK.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit:

  • assists in the prevention and detection of wildlife crime including illegal trade
  • collaborates with international partners to promote and encourage improved enforcement
  • records all wildlife incidents in the UK

Defra supports enforcement through the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime. It also contributes funding to the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit, who tackle serious wildlife crime and coordinate multi Force, multi agency operations.

To find out how to help in the fight against wildlife crime:

Relevant legislation and regulations

The CITES Convention text sets out the main requirements of CITES.

All EU Member States are signed up to CITES and we have EU legislation which lays down our requirements to implement CITES controls. They are called the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations.

Although the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations are directly applicable in the UK we also need  some UK legislation (known as the Control Of Trade in Endangered Species (COTES) Regulations) to implement CITES. There are three separate sets of COTES Regulations covering:

  • Enforcement – which lays down offences and penalties relating to CITES trade in the UK
  • Fees  – laying down the cost of obtaining CITES permits in the UK
  • Designation of Ports of Entry – laying down an approved list of ports and airports where CITES specimens can come in and out of the UK

Page last modified: 4 February 2011

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