International and EU legal frameworks


How to define wildlife crime

Although threatened species are protected by a number of international conventions, there is no universally accepted definition of environmental or wildlife crime. There have been attempts at defining wildlife crime, and initiatives call for the recognition of a new form of international crime, “ecocide”, which denotes actions that cause serious harm to nature. In this project, wildlife crime means any form of illegal actions directly harming a protected species (except for animal welfare aspects), which takes place within the 11 project countries, covering species (animals and plants) protected under the Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations, animal species listed in the EU Habitats and Birds Directives. The project also covers certain activities in contradiction with national law. 

International law: protecting threatened species by regulating global trade

Illegal wildlife trade is a serious and global threat to many species and ecosystems in general. Trade is often international, so the regulatory framework is also transnational. CITES is an international treaty that regulates the international trade of approximately 6000 species of animal and 33 000 plant species via a permitting system. It aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.  

CITES accords three levels of protection to species in international trade.

  • First, species listed in Appendix I are threatened with extinction, and so their international trade is generally prohibited with a few exceptions.
  • Appendix II lists species that are not necessarily threatened with extinction but for which trade must be controlled to avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival.
  • Appendix III lists species protected in at least one country, and this country requests other CITES Parties’ assistance to control the trade. 

All LIFE SWiPE countries are Parties to (members of) CITES. The EU is also a Party to the Convention. In the EU, CITES is implemented through a set of regulations (commonly called the “EU Wildlife Trade Regulations”) that are directly applicable in all EU Member States and go beyond the original provisions of CITES. Also, the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations have Annexes, which largely correspond to CITES Appendices. Some non-CITES species or species from CITES Appendix III for which the EU holds a reservation are listed in an additional Annex (Annex D).

Organised crime and corruption

Wildlife crime tends to be high-reward activity with relatively low risks of detection and sanctions being insignificant compared to the profit. Consequently, wildlife crime, more specifically illegal logging and wildlife trafficking, is often linked to organised crime groups and can be a ‘hotbed’ of corruption. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the United Nations Convention against Corruption are the relevant international instruments in this field. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime supports States to prevent, identify, investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate crimes, including wildlife crime.

Other international treaties protecting biodiversity and natural heritage

Other international treaties also play a role in addressing wildlife crime. The Convention on Biological Diversity (‘CBD’) aims to protect biological diversity, promote the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources. The CBD does not protect particular species or places and areas. Under its system, developing nations may seek financial assistance for biodiversity conservation programmes. The objective of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage is to protect designated cultural and natural sites from destruction, encroachment, and exploitation. This treaty also does not protect particular species or require any mandatory nature conservation steps; it only gives guidance on protecting cultural and natural heritage.

Bilateral agreements

The countries may also enter into bilateral agreements protecting threatened species and biodiversity, aiming to reduce illegal wildlife trade. Enforcement cooperation, including administrative and judicial assistance, also plays a crucial role in addressing wildlife crime.

Nature protection and addressing wildlife crime within the European Union

Within the EU, the cornerstones of nature and biodiversity protection are the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive. All wild bird species naturally occurring in the EU are protected by various regulatory approaches provided for the Birds Directive. Complementing this act, over 1000 animals and plant species and over 200 types of habitats are also under the protection provided by the Habitats Directive. The EU established Natura 2000 areas, a vast network of protected sites, the largest one in the world. It is a coordinated network of core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species, a place for Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. The current EU Biodiversity strategy for 2030 aims to put Europe’s biodiversity on the path to recovery by 2030 for the benefit of people, climate and the planet by establishing a larger EU-wide network of protected areas on land and at sea, launching an EU nature restoration plan, introducing measures to enable the necessary transformative change, and introducing measures to tackle the global biodiversity challenge. Within the EU, the Environmental Crime Directive aims to ensure environmental protection through criminal law. The directive refers to a list of environmental legislative acts, and in case of a breach, that could constitute a crime. In the EU legal system, environmental crime covers acts that breach environmental legislation and cause significant harm or risk to the environment and human health. The directive has been evaluated, and it is being reviewed. Furthermore, in the new EU Strategy to tackle Organised Crime 2021-2025, environmental crime, specifically wildlife trafficking, is recognised.

General comments about national-level protection

National parliaments also have an essential role in protecting nature. Each country may choose threatened species to protect in its territory. In many countries, international conventions regulating nature protection and environmental matters have to be incorporated in the national legal system. In the EU Member States, EU directives need to be transposed into the national legal system, and the Member States determine how exactly they reach the directive’s objectives. Apart from common minimum standards, it is in the national competency of each Member State to decide on its criminal justice system, so there are differences in Member State environmental criminal law due to different legal and judicial systems. Additionally, domestic law may be stricter than international law and EU requirements in protecting nature. The countries could decide on more ambitious conservation goals concerning certain species regardless of their unprotected status under international or EU instruments.