Washington, DC (Apr 18, 2013) – Ahead of a critical United Nations meeting on criminal justice next week, the United States and Peru are urging governments to ramp up criminal penalties for wildlife trafficking. World Wildlife Fund (WWF) believes this is an important milestone in recognizing the growing criminal threat of illegal wildlife trade.
Earlier this year Russia took steps to increase criminal penalties for wildlife trafficking; Japan followed in early April. The United States and Peru in turn have submitted a joint resolution to strengthen penalties against wildlife crimes as well through the UN system.
“The punishment must fit the crime and support for tougher penalties on wildlife crime from nations like the United States, Peru, Russia and Japan is critically important,” said Leigh Henry, senior policy advisor on species conservation with WWF. “Right now, the penalties in most countries are meaningless. Penalties need to compete with profits and enforcement is vital to ensure the survival of threatened species.”
WWF is calling on the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) to officially recognize wildlife trafficking as a serious crime as they prepare to meet next week in Vienna, Austria. Countries will debate criminal justice responses to wildlife trafficking and have the opportunity to formally request governments to make wildlife trafficking a serious crime, a move that would mean up to four years in prison or more for convicted offenders.
The United States is second only to China in consumption of wildlife, timber and fisheries products globally. Just recently, a Chinese business executive was convicted in Miami, FL in the smuggling of a carved rhinoceros horn from the US to China. The perpetrator faces a possible term in prison of up to 10 years on the single count filed against him, and a fine of up to $250,000.
Ramping up the significance of wildlife crime
Japan’s announcement this month that it intends to raise the penalties for those convicted of wildlife trafficking from one to five years in jail came just after Russian President Vladimir Putin submitted a law to parliament that would make smuggling of endangered species a criminal offence, meaning those convicted would spend time behind bars.
In 2012, a review of Russian wildlife legislation carried out by TRAFFIC and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) proposed amendments to Russian federal law that would tighten the penalties for illegal harvest and trafficking of rare species and their derivatives, and highlighted a loophole that had allowed poachers and traffickers to get away with insignificant fines.
“Countries increasing the penalties for wildlife offences signals a shift in global perception about the seriousness with which such crimes should be treated,” said Stephanie Pendry, TRAFFIC’s Enforcement Programme Leader. “We hope it indicates a new resolve by nations across the globe to overhaul and improve their legislation relating to wildlife crime.”
While the Russian parliament still needs to approve the president’s proposal for jail time, on March 31st the government increased the compensation due from anyone convicted of killing or taking from the wild tigers and leopards and other endangered species, including certain birds of prey, to RUB 1.1 million (US $35,000).
Meanwhile, the environment ministry in Japan has announced it intends to raise the maximum penalty for individuals convicted of trafficking wildlife from one year in prison or a fine of JPY 1 million (US $10,400) to five years behind bars or a fine of JPY 5 million (US $52,000).
The ministry also plans to raise the fine companies found guilty of trafficking endangered species face by one-hundred fold, to a maximum JPY 100 million (US $1.04 million). It is the first time penalties against wildlife trafficking have been raised in Japan since the law on the conservation of endangered species took effect in 1993, though more work is still needed to bring wildlife trade laws fully into line with modern practices. At the same time, the ministry also announced its intentions to ban advertisements selling threatened wildlife.
Last September New Zealand announced a similar increase in punitive measures, with penalties for those convicted of smuggling native wildlife increased to up five years in jail. Meanwhile, penalties handed out for those convicted of rhino poaching in South Africa have also increased. A Thai national kingpin in a rhino horn poaching racket was given a 40 year jail sentence late last year.
“By increasing penalties to more than four years in prison, countries such as South Africa, New Zealand and Japan have already shown they are taking wildlife crime seriously; this CCPCJ meeting is a golden opportunity for others to demonstrate the same commitment to tackling this globally significant and devastating crime,” said Wendy Elliot, WWF’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Campaign co-leader.