Most wildlife crimes in Europe go unpunished or undetected, says a brand-new report

Wildlife crime is devastating for endangered European species and a growing risk to our societies’ economic development and security, but most cases still go unpunished or undetected. This is one of the main findings of a new report published on July 5th 2023 by the LIFE SWiPE project, ‘Uncovering the Invisible: Successes and Challenges for Wildlife Crime Prosecution in Europe’. Based on information from 87 institutions contacted across 11 European countries, the report highlights the lack of monitoring of this phenomenon, making crimes against nature invisible. 

According to the report, which analyses data from the period 2016-2020, most of these crimes in Europe were related to the illegal killing of wildlife (27%), the use of poisoned baits (16%) or prohibited methods and equipment for hunting (14%), and the illegal wildlife trade (13%). 

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Infographic with the main findings

Although no animal population is spared from this threat, the goldfinch is the most targeted species in the report. This tiny bird exemplifies the multiple criminal activities that devastate European wildlife – it is killed for ‘fancy’ food in Italy, targeted by ‘poaching tourism’ in Serbia, illegally traded to the Middle East from Ukraine or captured as a pet in Spain. 

Other frequent victims of wildlife crime include threatened species of birds of prey, targeted by poisoned baits, and large carnivores. According to the report, the illegal killing of bears, wolves or lynx is primarily a result of perceived or actual coexistence conflicts with farmers and hunters and is also related to trophy hunting. 

“Wildlife is not reported missing like humans and cannot self-report themselves as victims, so most of these acts go unreported, and in all likelihood, much more go undetected”, says Roselina Stoeva, LIFE SWiPE’s project manager. 

For example, during the study period in Bulgaria, 4 brown bears were found dead by authorities and four other cases were known through media reports or files from prosecutors. However, over the same period, the decline in the bear population was ten times larger – by 80 individuals, from 411 to 329 – without any evidence of an increase in natural mortality.

Even if reported, many wildlife crime cases were not prosecuted. On average, 60% of wildlife crime complaints received by the prosecution did not result in indictments that led to court proceedings. The sanction most frequently applied was suspended imprisonment.

The study also highlights best practices from across Europe that could boost the prosecution of these crimes. Specialised police units, the use of technology such as drones or GPS for endangered species monitoring, or the training of sniffer dogs to detect poisoning and wildlife crimes have improved the detection and investigation of these crimes. 

“Wildlife crimes are wild crimes against life. To halt the decline in biodiversity and put nature on a path to recovery for 2030, governments must take bold actions to tackle the crimes that threaten our most iconic wildlife, right here in Europe”, says Roselina Stoeva. 

Creating a centralised database for wildlife crimes, increasing financial resources and improving cooperation across European borders are crucial. Legal loopholes enabling the purchase of illegal hunting gear should be closed, and there should be more significant training opportunities and specialisation in the enforcement and judicial sectors. 

The EU Council has recognised environmental crime as one of the ten priorities to fight against serious and organised crime. The revision of the EU Environmental Crime Directive, currently under negotiations, provides a unique opportunity to tackle this threat to biodiversity. 

“The European Parliament and Council must communicate that these crimes are not tolerated in Europe, ensuring that the revised Environmental Crime Directive is strong and ambitious enough. All major environmental crime offences should be covered by the Directive, and the maximum terms of imprisonment need to be dissuasive to deter wildlife crimes”, said Audrey Chambaudet, Policy Officer, Wildlife Trade and Wildlife Crime at the WWF European Policy Office.

For more information:

‘Uncovering the Invisible: Successes and Challenges for Wildlife Crime Prosecution in Europe’: link to full report