EU Observer

Elephants are a ‘big thing’ too, Mr Juncker!

  • ‘Don’t forget me, Mr Juncker!’ – an African elephant raises its trunk in warning (Photo: Wikimedia)

Last week, the European Commission released its progress report on wildlife trafficking.

Few people will need convincing that there’s a lot of progress still to make.

The World Wildlife Fund recently estimated that the population of wild animals has decreased by 60 percent since 1970.

Ahead of this week’s Biodiversity Summit in Egypt, the UN warned that hundreds of species further face extinction if drastic action isn’t immediately forthcoming.

Seems like hardly a day goes by without some dramatic announcement.

Trafficking is only a part of the problem. Most depends on the preservation of natural ecosystems, now threatened by climate change, unsustainable economic development, inadequate planning and legal protection on the spot. But it is a crucial one, and one where the EU can make all the difference.

As the largest market in the world, Europe is also one of the world’s main hubs for illicit wildlife trade and commodities such as medicinal products, exotic pets and live reptiles, corals or ivory.

If there is a demand for illegal goods anywhere in the world, they will sooner or later pass through our borders.

If we don’t control our external borders together and coordinate our internal actions, they will pass through unnoticed and unpunished.

So this is exactly what we’ve been doing in recent years.

The report shows a lot of progress made in devising national action plans, aligning practices and procedures across borders, exchanging information between national authorities like customs and police services, and in mobilising businesses and civil society organisations.

In 2016 alone, there were 2,268 significant seizures of wildlife commodities in the EU, two thirds of which at external borders, mostly at airports. The European Union is tackling this head-on, as one and, for such an intricate problem, pretty effectively.

Internationally, efforts like the ‘EU TWIX’ information exchange tool – which has led to several cross-border investigations within Europe – are being noticed and copied. And with some €340m in EU development and cooperation funding over the past two years, we are targeting the source of the problem as well.

This is an EU success story.

And yet, for some reason, the commission itself seems less than convinced.

One of the key issues in tackling wildlife trafficking is the continuing trade in ivory and rhino horn.

Internationally, we see domestic ivory market closures in the United States, China and Hong Kong, and a coalition of more than 30 African nations is putting pressure on the EU to close its market to ivory products as well.

The need to do more against the ivory trade was one of the salient points to come out of the commission’s own public consultation, with current efforts widely perceived as insufficient to halt illegal sales within and through the EU.

The European Parliament itself has called upon the commission to explore a ban on ivory and rhino horn two years ago, as it becomes increasingly clear that the legal domestic market for ivory contributes to poaching and illegal trading as well.

Legal loopholes and patchy implementation

Despite earlier indications, the commission now stops short of proposing a clear EU-level closure of the domestic ivory trade, opting for clearly unsatisfactory non-binding guidance instead, which leaves a lot of legal loopholes and patchy implementation.

There is nothing in the process, the public consultation or the substance of the issue underpinning this decision, which remains unexplained and indeed seems rather inexplicable a strategy.

With parliament and member states both explicitly demanding action, a rare alliance has formed. If ever there was a popular, immediately effective and easy piece of regulation, it is this.

So who at the Berlaymont who is blocking a legal proposal?

Surely a commission that promised to be “big on big things and small on small things” doesn’t need reminding: elephants are a big thing too!

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy is a Dutch MEP for D66/ALDE