Normally I write about wildlife conservation and crime issues in Southern Africa. But on this World Wildlife Conservation Day, I’m going to focus on recent forays into the issue of wildlife crime in the UK. Indeed, since about mid-way through my PhD I find it interesting how the issues of wildlife conservation and wildlife crime converge in so many different ways. And this has largely meant that I turn my analytical lens away from spaces and institutions traditionally thought about as related to conservation.
In the UK, wildlife crime is defined as “any action which contravenes current legislation governing the protection of the UK’s wild animals and plants.” As part of my ongoing research, I want to better understand the dynamics of wildlife crime and enforcement efforts in a variety of contexts. Since I now live in the UK, it is somewhat of an obvious choice (in addition to the fact that the UK is very vocal on the international stage about addressing IWT). On Saturday Dec 1st, I attended the 30th Annual UK Wildlife Crime Enforcers Conference.
Some may think this venue might seem a bit of an odd choice for me given that I largely focus on Southern Africa and the issues of illegal wildlife trade occurring in and through Mozambique and South Africa. I rarely, if ever, do research in my own ‘backyard.’ While I’m still doing a lot of research in Mozambique, I’m also scaling up my analyses, and this scaling up is largely framed by a very broad set of research questions concerning what is conservation law enforcement, how is it understood, and how is it practiced in different spaces. Pursuing these very general questions means that I need to look beyond my traditional areas of focus as well as the scales that I usually work at to understand efforts to address wildlife crime in different regions and contexts. A venue like the Annual UK Wildlife Crime Enforcers Conference offered that opportunity. Plus, spending a day surrounded by 100 or so police and law enforcement officers who dedicate their time to wildlife crime issues sounds like a pretty interesting Saturday!
On a methodological note, I’m increasingly finding that meetings of professional bodies are a really productive way to understand the state of a field. Presentations given by professionals in a certain sector to each other about their work, the state of the field, and the important successes, challenges, and issues they face provide an excellent opportunity to delve right into a sector and understand it in ways that resonate within their own professional circles. In particular, I think this helps do three things as a researcher in a new context: First, it provides a good, broad overview of the sector in the current conjuncture. Second, it helps a researcher understand and become acquainted with the vocabulary that people who work in that field use, and how the vocabulary might differ from other contexts. Together, these provide a bit of a crash course, and for me this was a crash course on wildlife crime and related law enforcement efforts in the UK. And I sure did learn a lot. Third, these meetings provide valuable networking opportunities to pursue further research in a given field.
The main enforcement body dedicated to wildlife crime in the UK is the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU). However, the 43 UK police forces also have officers and detectives that deal with wildlife crime. Many of these officers are in charge of rural crime and dedicate themselves to wildlife crime on top of their regular duties. Rural and wildlife crime are often packaged together with an understanding that domestic wildlife crime in the UK largely occurs in rural areas, although not exclusively. To give a sense of what wildfire crime looks like in the UK, we can go to the wildlife crime priority areas set out by the (NWCU), which are as follows:
- Badger persecution
- Bat persecution
- Raptor persecution
- Freshwater pearl mussels
- Poaching (deer, fish, and hare coursing)
- CITES enforcement issues
My own research interests overlap directly with the last point, CITES issues, so I was particularly interested in that topic. Presentations from Border Force focused on customs’ support of CITES enforcement. The priorities that were set out include the European Eel, ivory and rhino horn, reptiles, raptors and raptor eggs, and medicinal and health products. Some of these are destined for the UK domestic market, while others use the UK as a transit country and pass through Heathrow and other airports, or remain in the UK while they are put online and then shipped to an international buyer. Indeed, the focus on the world wide web and cyber trade was a big theme in terms of the trade and trafficking component of wildlife crime. There was no shying away from the reality that the online market place is the largest market place, with much of the selling and buying being done in the open and in plain sight on platforms like Ebay. One of the issues that routinely came up was a need to modernize the police force to increase the capacity of law enforcement to monitor and curtail the online trade.
The other wildlife crimes mentioned also grabbed my attention because they are so different to what I am used to researching, and serve as a stark reminder that crimes against and involving wildlife are varied. We often get too focused on those high-value, attention grabbing species and issues that are important, but are only part of the story and may not actually be what takes up the majority of time and resources of law enforcement agencies.
I also came away with a better sense of the similarities between the concerns about wildlife crime in the UK and Southern African context:
- Concerns about wildlife crime extend beyond wildlife itself and are wrapped up in how wildlife crime might be connected to other types of crime;
- Wildlife crime is very much framed as serious crime and there is a push to get that recognized and have wildlife crime be taken as seriously as any other type of ‘crime’;
- Wildlife crime is increasing, efforts to address wildlife crime are also increasing, but law enforcement feels under resourced. There is thus a push to raise the profile of wildlife crime and why it matters while also trying to get more resources dedicated to the issue;
- It is difficult to silo wildlife crime into being a domestic or international issue and cooperation is needed.
All of these overlaps and parallel trends help bring the various places of my research on wildlife crime together.
So what is next in terms of UK-based research as a site itself and as a node in the global web of IWT and wildlife-related law enforcement? In mid-December I go to Scotland to visit the UK’s Wildlife DNA Forensics Lab, and I am very much looking forward to it.