Penalties for wildlife criminals sentenced in England and Wales are ‘low and inconsistent’


The Independent

Date Published

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Every 25 minutes, an elephant is killed for its ivory. The illegal trade in wildlife is now threatening populations of some of the rarest plants and animals on the planet. As the fourth largest international illegal trade, illicit wildlife trade has become such a concern that the United Nations now considers it as a serious crime. This is due to its links with organised criminals and other serious offences like human trafficking. Data has shown that seizures of ivory, rhino horn, birds and reptiles accounted for nearly two-thirds of all wildlife seizures from air transport.

Unfortunately, the risks associated with committing wildlife crimes are low in many countries because the enforcers and courts are not adequately resourced to deal with the issue. Thankfully, here in the UK, we are blessed with the National Wildlife Crime Unit which is a dedicated police unit dealing with wildlife crime in the UK. We also have the well-trained UK Border Force who monitor the borders for any illegal wildlife products entering or leaving the UK.

However, when it comes to prosecuting wildlife crimes, the courts struggle to sentence offenders appropriately. This could be due in part to their lack of sentencing guidelines. Sentencing guidelines set out clear ways for the courts to decide on the most appropriate penalty. Guidelines consider the seriousness of the offences, as well as the culpability and harm caused.

WWF undertook extensive research on the sentences given to wildlife trade offenders who had been tried in English and Welsh courts between 1986 and 2013. What we discovered was shocking: almost three-quarters of cases resulted in non-custodial sentences, meaning no prison time. And, what’s worse, despite the profits made from illegal wildlife products being the main driving force for criminals, around 70% of the fines given as part of the penalty were less than the value of the wildlife product in question. Lastly, only 58% of sentences resulted in any fine at all, which is worrying considering the high profits and harm caused to the planet’s biodiversity.

For instance, in 2016, a man was sentenced at Portsmouth Magistrates’ Court for illegally selling 78 ivory items on eBay amounting to £6,408. He only received one year’s suspended sentence, and was given 150 hours unpaid work, £85 victim surcharge and costs of £85. This was despite the fact that the highest fine he could have got for this crime, had he been tried in a Crown court, could have been 5 years in prison and an unlimited fine.

Another recent case was against a vintage clothing store, which was found to be selling jewellery made of big cat claws in central London. The owner was fined just £2,000 for selling the jewellery and was not given a prison sentence.

Overall, our research found that sentencing of illegal wildlife trade in England and Wales is inconsistent and lenient. Not having sentencing guidelines has meant that offenders have been given comparatively light penalties.

Our report highlighted that one of the major reasons why sentences were so lenient was because courts may not be fully informed on the seriousness of wildlife crime, or the impact that it has on the natural world.

WWF and many other organisations are therefore calling on the Sentencing Council of England and Wales to introduce sentencing guidelines for wildlife trade offences.  

We already have sentencing guidelines for environmental pollution and dangerous dog offences, as well as many other crimes. Research by the Sentencing Council has shown that introducing guidelines can increase the average penalties given for crimes.

Whilst the UK is actively encouraging other countries to tackle wildlife crime, it is crucial that we lead by example – particularly as London will be hosting the next international Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference in 2018.

The Scottish Sentencing Council has already announced it will introduce guidelines for environment and wildlife offences. The future of our natural world depends on criminals being effectively punished for their crimes and for that to be a deterrent to future illegal wildlife trade. We must make sure England and Wales do not lag behind.