BIOSEC doctoral researcher Hannah Dickinson reflects on her recent fieldwork in Brussels.
I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in Brussels on my first-stint of PhD fieldwork, and now have many things to reflect upon. I went to Brussels at the start of February to meet with an assortment of individuals who were directly or indirectly linked to my research on the regulation of wildlife crime within the EU, with a specific focus upon regulation of (illegal) sturgeon and caviar trade. My interviews took me on fascinating journeys to caviar production facilities hidden away on industrial estates outside of Brussels; to the leafy interior of DG-ENV at the European Commission; to glamorous caviar boutiques; and to the offices of customs officials, packed from floor to ceiling with seized illicit wildlife goods.
As is to be expected of someone at this stage in the PhD, I’ve come away from this stint of fieldwork with more questions than answers. But that being said, I am thankful to my participants for the time they offered and their openness.
The interviews confirmed some of my thoughts and twisted others entirely on their head. But through the interviews some themes have emerged, and others that I had already been pondering have taken new trajectories – some of which I’ll discuss below.
With an aim of the BIOSEC project being to critically examine the link between biodiversity conservation, wildlife crime and security, ‘Security’ was an important dimension of my interviews.
What quickly became clear is that my interviewees exhibited myriad and complex understandings of what ‘security’ means when linked to wildlife crime.
But, despite the varied understandings, most respondents took a stance that was something ostensibly different to the oft-cited stories linking poaching and trafficking with terrorism. In fact, the European Commission confirmed that they want to explore wildlife crime and security more ‘broadly’ than the ivory-terrorism nexus. Instead, they are seeking to emphasize the links that wildlife crime has with other forms of organized crime and corruption. The Commission are in the process of compiling a report on this issue, which will be published in the coming months – so keep your eyes peeled!
So, on the one hand, many felt that the ivory-terrorism link is overplayed and losing salience. On the other hand, there were suggestions that for enforcement officials who are perhaps unaccustomed (or even unwilling) to dealing with wildlife trafficking issues, deploying the ivory-terrorism narrative can actually be productive. Interestingly, I was told that some on-the-ground enforcement officials are concerned about taxpayer’s money being used to focus upon ‘lesser’ crimes such as IWT, when terrorism poses an on-going threat to society. To this extent, it seemed some were supportive of deploying the ‘ivory-terrorism’ narrative, as it can potentially pique the interest and commitment of police to investigating wildlife crime cases.
In contrast, others talked about ‘subjective’ or ‘philosophical’ notions of security, particularly in relation to instances where wildlife crime has the potential to negatively impact upon communities’ lives by destroying the foundations of their homes, heritage, and cultural ties to the natural world. This is particularly significant for rural communities in Romania for example, living in timber trafficking hotspots where the forest is part of their natural environment, and provides a level of ‘protection’ to them. In this sense, as timber is illegally removed people feel less secure in the environmental milieu in which they have lived and worked for many years. I found this notion particularly interesting, and would be inclined to think that if we paid more attention to these emotive understandings of security, our methods of intervention against wildlife crime might be more grounded and effective.
A second major theme emerging from discussions was around the banal, ‘everydayness’ of many wildlife trafficking incidents. We are accustomed to highly publicised political movements around ivory (e.g bans in China, Hong Kong, and ivory ban consultations in the UK and EU), and media stories focusing upon large-scale seizures of derivatives from charismatic species such as rhino or pangolin. Thus, it is very easy to think that IWT is all about the ‘spectacular’.
However, an afternoon sat in a customs office, or a discussion with an environmental crime prosecutor really highlighted that although illegal wildlife trade is sometimes spectacular, it is mostly much more mundane. The buyers, the items, and the transit methods related to a significant proportion of wildlife trafficking incidents are anything but ‘spectacular.’
Image: Airport security. Photo credit: Shutterstock
Over and over again, I’ve been told that the most common items that are coming into the EU and destined for European customers, are health food supplements and diet pills that have been purchased online, but contain CITES listed plant species such as aloe ferox, orchids, and African cherry bark. A pot of 60 pills is said to cost around 6 or 7 dollars, and customs officials are coming across shipments of these on an almost daily basis. The majority of these packages are sent via normal postal services, and in all likelihood are being purchased by ‘naïve’ individuals hoping to lose some weight in time for summer, and are completely unaware that what they are buying contains flora species that are prohibited for commercial international trade without CITES permits. These buyers definitely don’t fit the stereotypical image of the Asian ‘Super-consumer’, but are a prescient reminder of the fact that: A) illegal wildlife trade is part of everyday economies; and B) Europe is a key end-user market for wildlife products.
Similarly, gone are the days of huge seizures of illicit caviar. Nowadays, most caviar seizures happening in the confines of the EU occur when a passenger carries more on their person than the 125g limit (of legally farmed caviar) that they are allowed to carry without a CITES permit (opportunism or ignorance, it is often hard to determine). Seizures of caviar that are qualitatively ‘illegal’ also peak around Christmas and New Year when people take a risk on buying unlabelled ‘cheap’ caviar online, which is often sent via Ukraine into the EU. But as with the health supplements, these caviar ‘shipments’ are sent via standard postage mechanisms, and in small quantities. The buyers may have a little more idea about the illicit nature of their transactions, but the scale, the selling methods, and the postage methods, suggest that these are not the kind of shady criminals so often associated with wildlife crime.
Further examples of the ‘everydayness’ of illegal wildlife trade abound. One customs authority listed in excess of 30,000 seizures of musical instruments containing the recently CITES listed Dalbergia (Rosewood). Why is there so many? It is not some sort of huge-scale trafficking enterprise, but merely that the companies making and selling the instruments had not caught up with the regulations.
In sum, most of my conversations during my time in Brussels alerted me to the fact that (illegal) wildlife products are inherent parts of the everyday economic circulations of our lives. The high-profile, huge seizures of ivory, rhino horn, and pangolin scales are just one component of a vast illicit economy that spans continents and scales.
If you would like to contact Hannah about her research, please email her on firstname.lastname@example.org