Wildlife crime has been broadly defined as, “​Any action which contravenes current legislation governing the protection of the UK’s wild animals and plants 1, although there is also an international dimension and also considerable overlap with animal welfare legislation. In Scotland, wildlife crime has been defined with more precision and with reference to specific legislation.​2​ The UK legislation is voluminous, complex and full of loopholes which highly-paid defence lawyers are easily able to exploit.​3 To maximise the use of limited resources, the National Wildlife Crime Unit prioritises specific crimes across the UK that are assessed as posing the greatest current threat to either the conservation status of a species or which show the highest volume of crime and therefore require an immediate UK-wide response. These strategic assessments are conducted every two years and the most recent UK Wildlife Crime Priorities (2018-2020) have been identified as follows:​4

  • Badger persecution
  • Bat persecution
  • CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) with a focus on European eel, raptors, ivory, medicinal & health products, reptiles, rhino horn & timber ● Freshwater pearl mussels
  • Poaching (with a focus on deer poaching/coursing, fish poaching and hare poaching, alongside associated anti-social & threatening behaviour)
  • Raptor persecution (with a focus on hen harrier, goshawk, golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, red kite and peregrine)

Understanding the scale and frequency of wildlife crime is crucial, not only to allocate scarce resources appropriately but also to inform governments to enable them to develop effective policies to reduce crime. The European Parliament recently voted​5​ to upgrade wildlife trafficking to be categorised as ‘serious and organised crime’, the same category as terrorism, human trafficking and arms smuggling. Serious and organised crime is defined as: ‘​Serious crime planned, coordinated and conducted by people working

together on a continuing basis. Their motivation is often, but not always, financial gain’.​6 Given this definition, other types of wildlife crime should also be similarly classified, notably the widespread and systematic persecution of several raptor species on driven grouse moors. However, despite the gravity of offences, current wildlife crime recording requirements are inadequate and ineffective resulting in chronic under-recording.​7​,​8 The extent of the under-recording of all wildlife crime is exceptionally difficult to quantify and this ‘dark figure’ is widely accepted as being a considerable hindrance in tackling the issue.​9​,​10 Under-reporting (and subsequent under-recording) is largely due to the remoteness of some wildlife crime locations, especially those in rural areas where circumstances severely limit the number of potential witnesses. Indeed, what is usually found is the aftermath of a crime, as opposed to the witnessing of a crime in progress. Most evidence, often in the form of victims of the crime, is found purely by accidental discovery (e.g. by passing walkers). It is also known that some offenders take extra measures to prevent the detection of their crimes, e.g. by hiding material evidence such as pearl-fished shells​11 and by removing injured birds 12​ or dead birds and badgers​13​,​14​,​15​ from the crime scene and relocating them elsewhere, sometimes to a roadside to be disguised as accidental victims of a road traffic collision.​16​ There is growing concern that the UK government’s controversial badger cull is also being used to disguise and facilitate the barbaric offence of badger baiting.​17 With the added complication of inconsistent decisions on the legal admissibility of covert video evidence,​18​,​19​ along with social and cultural pressures preventing whistle-blowing and inhibiting certain sectors of both the urban and rural community from reporting wildlife crime incidents, it is inevitable that under-reporting (and thus under-recording) will hinder the quantification of wildlife crime. This leads to a vicious cycle of being unable to provide sufficient evidence to convince governments that further action is justified, although recent improvements have been made in Scotland following new legislation (Wildlife & Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011) which compels the Scottish government to publish an annual report on wildlife crime figures.​20 For some wildlife crime, notably raptor persecution, its extent and scale can be determined by other sources of evidence. Long-term scientific data have emphatically shown that raptor persecution is so prevalent, particularly on land managed for driven grouse shooting, that it is having population-level effects on some species, e.g. golden eagle;​21​,​22​,​23​,24,​25​ hen harrier;​26​,​27​,​28​,​29 peregrine;​30,​31​,32,​33 goshawk; 34,​35​ red kite.​36​,​37​ The Scottish government has begun to utilise these data to identify wildlife crime hotspots and exert additional pressure​38​ but the Westminster government remains wilfully blind,​39 largely due to vested interests and the hugely influential landowners’ lobby. A further consequence of under-recording is an inconsistent approach to the police investigation of reported wildlife crime. If the data aren’t available to demonstrate wildlife crime as a local problem, Police Crime Commissioners will struggle to allocate sufficient funding and resources from already over-stretched budgets, resulting in poor quality follow-up investigations.​40 There are some notable exceptions, for example the recent establishment of an award-winning full time Rural Crime Team by North Wales Police​41​ which has proved so successful the model is now being replicated by some other police forces. In addition, there are examples of specifically focused police operations such as Operation Owl​42​ (North Yorkshire Police, focusing on raptor persecution) and Operation Galileo​43​ (Lincolnshire Police, focusing on hare coursing) that are proving highly effective, but the fact remains that many police forces expect their specialist wildlife crime officers to undertake investigations secondarily to other policing duties. Unsurprisingly against this backdrop, prosecutions for wildlife crime are rare and even when a conviction is secured, penalties are inconsistently applied and often with little or no consideration of the wider conservation impacts of the crime.​7​,​40​ This is in sharp contrast to enforcement measures and penalties in other European countries, notably Spain and Italy, where the authorities deploy specially-trained canine units to detect poisoned baits and routinely undertake proactive spot checks and searches.​44​,​45​ Penalties on conviction have included custodial sentences, a ban on hunting, and significant fines to be paid to the government for the estimated conservation value of the poisoned victims and the money is used specifically to support future monitoring and conservation efforts.​45​,​46​ In one case a farmer who laid out nine poisoned baits and poisoned six Spanish Imperial Eagles and one fox was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment AND a three-year disqualification from hunting AND a fine of 360,000 Euros (£259,762.62) to be paid to the regional government for the estimated value of the six eagles.​47 Currently, many wildlife crime offenders in the UK can be seen to be ‘getting away with it’ because penalties have little personal consequence but even if stiffer penalties were applied, the deterrent effect would still be minimal because offenders know that the chances of prosecution are so slim that this outweighs the risk of committing the offence in the first place.​10​,​48

DR RUTH TINGAY, RAPTOR ECOLOGIST AND CONSERVATIONIST

References:
1. National Wildlife Crime Unit: What is wildlife crime? Available at: 
http://www.nwcu.police.uk/what-is-wildlife-crime/(accessed 24/08/18)
2. PAW Scotland (2011). PAW Scotland wildlife crime definition. Available at: 
https://www.gov.scot/Topics/Environment/Wildlife-Habitats/paw- scotland/Resources/Reports/WildlifeCrimeDefinition(accessed 24/08/18)
3. Raptor Persecution UK (2018). Why the video evidence was ruled inadmissible in the Bleasdale Estate case. Available at: 
https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/2018/04/13/why-the-video-evidence-was-ruled-inadmissible-in-the-bleasdale-estate-case/(accessed 24/08/18)
4. National Police Chiefs’ Council (2018). Wildlife Crime Policing Strategy, 2018-2021. Available at: 
http://www.npcc.police.uk/documents/crime/2018/NPCC%20Wildlife%20Crime%20Policing%20Strategy%202018%20%202021.pdf(accessed 24/08/18)
5. MEPs for Wildlife (2016). Illegal wildlife crime now recognised as a “serious and organised crime”. Available at: 
http://meps4wildlife.eu/illegal-wildlife-crime-now-recognised-as-a-serious-and-organised-crime/(accessed 27/08/18)
6. National Crime Agency. Organised crime groups. Available at: 
http://www.nationalcrimeagency.gov.uk/crime-threats/organised-crime-groups(accessed 27/08/18)
7. Tingay, R.E. (2015). Natural Injustice: A review of the enforcement of wildlife protection legislation in Scotland. Scottish Environment LINK, Perth, Scotland