Background: The UK is known to be a world centre for the illegal wildlife trade. In February 2002, WWF-UK uncovered the scale of this market. The report, called Traded towards extinction? revealed that 1 million illegal wildlife items were seized by HM Customs and Excise from 1996 to 2000, and highlighted that the illegal trade contributed to the loss of natural habitats and the extinction of the world's most endangered species.
But the most surprising finding was that these crimes were going unpunished.
The report found that, on average, HM Customs made just one prosecution for every 130,000 items seized, and even then the fines were very low.
If prosecuted in a magistrate's court, offenders faced fines of up to £5,000, and imprisonment for up to three months. In a Crown Court the sentence was up to two years, but even then the offence was not severe enough to allow the police to enter and search premises without a warrant and compel suspects to be interviewed. The WWF report also uncovered serious inconsistencies in the law - it was illegal to sell a common frog in the UK, but not a Bengal tiger.
Shortly after the report was published, WWF-UK teamed up with Traffic International, a wildlife trade monitoring programme created by the World Conservation Union and WWF, to kick off a campaign to make illegal trading an arrestable offence.
Aims: The main objective of the campaign was to change the law to increase the maximum prison sentence for wildlife trade crimes in a Crown Court from two to five years, thereby making the offences automatically arrestable.
WWF-UK hoped to include that change in the Criminal Justice Bill that was due to be passed in November 2003.
Campaigners also wanted to introduce sentencing guidelines for magistrates and judges.
How it worked In nine months, WWF-UK and its campaigning partner Traffic International collected 122,000 online and written signatures for their petition. Articles about the illegal wildlife trade were featured in national newspapers and on TV chat shows. Campaigners also targeted police officers, the customs service and magistrates through specialist media, and sought to link the trade with drugs and arms offences.
The petition was presented to Elliot Morley MP, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. The campaigners also asked the public to write letters to their MPs and ministers at the Home Office and DEFRA. Altogether, 4,500 electronic and hard-copy letters were sent.
WWF-UK sought the support of a cross-party group of MPs, including John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw and chair of the All-Party Group on Endangered Species. Mann tabled an early day motion which secured the support of 344 MPs, and collected the sixth-largest number of signatures in the Parliamentary year. Debates were held in the House of Commons, Westminster Hall and the House of Lords, during which MPs and Peers raised the issue with ministers from DEFRA and the Home Office.
Results: In June 2003, in response to strong support from MPs and the public, the Government tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which made illegal wildlife trade an arrestable offence. The Bill was made law this November. Crawford Allan, wildlife trade campaign co-ordinator at Traffic International, said: "The future of endangered species, threatened by trade, is a little less perilous thanks to this strong law in the UK".
Campaigners will now turn their attention to ensuring that the police tackle wildlife crimes properly and that magistrates use their new sentencing power to deter people from this trade. To this end, the Metropolitan Police has already recruited two wildlife officers.