Reports of illegal fishing and the theft of rare fungi and plants all increased sharply in 2020 even as convictions fell and the authorities failed to use widespread powers to seize the assets of the few criminals who were convicted.
A study by London think tank the Royal United Services Institute said that tracing the proceeds from the multimillion-pound trade in wildlife was a low priority for police forces.
The British government had focused more on targeting overseas wildlife smuggling networks than on tackling criminals at home with a national unit relying on local forces to drive investigations.
The report said that criminal proceeds were confiscated only six times after 41 prosecutions in the five years to July 2021. The amount recovered peaked in 2017 at £109,000 and fell to just £2,455 in 2020, Rusi said.
Convictions that year included Gilbert Khoo, a seafood trader who is believed to have made millions by smuggling 5.3 million endangered baby eels from Europe to Asia.
Khoo, 67, who acted as the UK middleman for a global smuggling network, managed to avoid jail and later told investigators he was unable to remember what he had done with the proceeds of his crimes because of his dementia.
The tiny amounts recovered contrasted with the lucrative nature of wildlife smuggling highlighted by Khoo and a group of Irish criminals known as the Rathkeale Rovers who specialised in trafficking stolen rhino horn.
The group stole horns from private collections, zoos and museums across Europe and sold them to Chinese and Vietnamese middlemen. They sold them for high prices to customers in the Far East, who bought them in the widespread if mistaken belief that they cured disease and acted as an aphrodisiac when ground down and ingested.
The gang operated under the radar for years before moving into stealing antiquities from museums and selling them through the same networks. Some of the gang’s key players were finally jailed after stealing valuable artefacts worth about £57m from museums in Durham and Cambridge.
The report, commissioned by the UK government, highlighted how the UK was one of the leading advocates of following the money trail generated by the illegal trade and has committed £34m to more than 100 projects to counter wildlife crimes since 2014.
But the vast majority of wildlife products seized by border officials in the UK are destroyed with no prosecutions.
Alexandria Reid, who wrote the report, said: “Our report shows the UK government must take its own advice on prioritising illegal wildlife trade cases.
“We cannot tackle climate change and biodiversity loss until we address the role the UK financial system plays in laundering the vast profits made by criminals engaged in environmental crime.”