Less than 7% of wildlife crimes in Spain resulted in a court sentence

Less than 7% of recorded cases of wildlife crime between 2015 and 2020 ended with a court sentence, according to a report by WWF Spain. The data was unveiled at a knowledge-exchange workshop with judicial and police authorities held in Madrid in May 2023, as part of the LIFE SWIPE project.

In the absence of an official, centralised database to monitor the illegal killing of protected wildlife in Spain, WWF has presented the most comprehensive analysis to date of this problem in the country, carried out together with the International Centre for Environmental Law Studies (CIEDA-CIEMAT), the University of Granada (UGR) and the Institute for Advanced Social Studies (IESA-CSIC). According to the research, produced as part of the LIFE SWiPE project, public authorities compiled a total of 4,902 cases of crimes committed against protected species of fauna between 2015 and 2020, involving the death of at least 8,784 animals.

These official data, obtained from requests for information from the Autonomous regions of Spain, are only the tip of the iceberg, as most cases go undetected: for example, it is estimated that just one of these crimes (the use of poison in the countryside) leads to the death of around 10,000 animals each year, and that only 10-15% of poisoning cases come to light. This could be explained by the sheer size of the territory to be covered, coupled with a lack of human resources, although technologies such as the use of GPS devices in wildlife conservation projects, the development of specialised police units and the use of canine patrols make a significant contribution towards detection.

Impunity is exacerbating biodiversity loss

Wildlife crime is devastating for biodiversity, especially when it affects endangered species. The use of poison, illegal hunting and fishing, the use of prohibited trapping methods or trafficking pose a serious risk to these species, and in many cases are linked to organised crime or other offences, such as drug trafficking.

Despite the seriousness of these crimes, very few are ever prosecuted, being dealt with administratively (e.g. with a fine) or remaining unresolved. According to the research, there were only 327 court sentences out of the 4,902 cases of wildlife crime registered in Spain (6.67% of the cases).

The most frequent convictions were for possession of illegal hunting and fishing gear (213 convictions), illegal sale and purchase of wildlife (32 convictions) and use of poison (26 convictions).

Focusing on the number of cases, the most frequent crimes are poaching (1773 cases), poisoning (1899 cases) and the use or possession of illegal methods of capture (446). Impunity is particularly high for poaching cases: only 0.8% of recorded cases resulted in a court sentence.

“Wildlife crimes are not minor offences, but public administrations continue to treat them as such. Although much progress has been made in this field in recent years, the high degree of impunity that still exists in our country and the critical state of biodiversity globally, shows us that much remains to be done”, says Silvia Díaz, LIFE SWiPE coordinator at WWF Spain.

A knowledge-exchange workshop to advance wildlife crime prosecution

The research also revealed that Spain is at the forefront in Europe in certain areas of the fight against wildlife crime: for example, with multidisciplinary teams combating the use of poison in the countryside.

To make further progress, more than 160 key actors in the wildlife crime enforcement chain – from judges and prosecutors to environmental agents and representatives of Europol – met for two days in Madrid in May 30th and May 31st, 2023, for a knowledge exchange conference. The event was organised in collaboration with the Ministry for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge and with the advice of CIEDA-CIEMAT, and was held as part of the trainings of the LIFE SWiPE project.

The report was also presented at another knowledge-exchange and training workshop, that took place in June 30th in La Graciosa, Canary Islands. More than 30 in-person and virtual participants, including environmental officers and researchs, discussed how to improve wildlife crime prosecution to protect the archipielago’s precious and unique biodiversity.

Those who commit wildlife crime use increasingly sophisticated methods, often involving criminal networks beyond our borders. This is why it is vital to work on specialisation and cooperation between agents.

In Spain there are legal instruments and tools to fight these crimes effectively, with environmental agents from the Autonomous Regions, customs, and a specialised police force, SEPRONA, which is an example across Europe, as well as a coordinating Public Prosecutor’s Office for the Environment.

In addition to increasing cooperation between all actors involved, other measures such as the training of specialised wildlife crime judges, which exists in other countries, need to be promoted. The Government also has the opportunity to show its commitment to this threat by updating the 2018 Spanish Action Plan against Illegal Trafficking and International Poaching of Wildlife (TIFIES Plan) and the revision of the National Poison Strategy – in which draft WWF Spain has actively participated.