European organised crime groups active in trafficking endangered species

As part of its responsibility to monitor developments in the threat from organised crime and terrorism in Europe, analysis carried out by Europol shows that organised crime groups based in the European Union (EU) are illicitly trading endangered species of wild fauna and flora.

With the use of false documents, tiger skins from the Far East, exotic birds from South America and turtles from North Africa are being smuggled into the EU. Routes used for illegal immigration and drugs trafficking are also being used for smuggling rare animals, corals and valuable plants. Europe is a key market for exotic animals such as toucans, parrots, spiders and crocodiles from, for example, Central and South America, and these animals are often traded with very high profits for the criminals. Globally, the revenues generated by trafficking endangered species are estimated to be over 4.4 billion euros per year.

The trade in endangered species is largely driven by the extraordinary ‘low risk/high profit’ ratio. A bird, like an Ara Macaw, purchased for around 10 euros in the Brazilian rainforest, has a resale value of 1500 euros in Europe. Animals are often trafficked as eggs and hatchlings, which are then smuggled by human couriers through international airports across the EU. In some cases, they are also trafficked by ship through seaports in South–West Europe, before being distributed throughout the EU by road. Sadly, 90 per cent of specimens being trafficked do not survive the capture and transportation phase. The use of counterfeit certificates, fake leg rings, and duplication of ring numbers and certificates for dead specimens is prevalent.

Most of these offences are still committed by individuals and loose networks, but the involvement of organised crime groups is notable and expected to continue.

The findings from Europol’s analysis on trafficking in endangered species have been forwarded to Interpol’s Environmental Crime Programme which assists the organisation’s 188 member countries in the effective enforcement of national and international environment laws and treaties. Global and regional operations targeting the illegal trade in wildlife coordinated by Interpol have led to hundreds of arrests worldwide, most recently Operation Ramp, which involved 51 countries and resulted in the seizure of thousands of animals and products worth more than 25 million euros. The Interpol Environmental Crime Programme produces enforcement manuals and guides to support agencies around the world.

Some of the recommendations to fight trafficking in endangered species include:

  • The creation of a dedicated inter-governmental unit to support trans–border wildlife crime investigations and capacity building initiatives to combat wildlife crime.
  • Developing national multidisciplinary teams, including law enforcement, customs and environmental agencies, which are capable and equipped to investigate and prosecute individuals, companies, networks and organised crime groups engaged in trafficking endangered species.
  • A tactical analysis of the Balkan Route, followed by intelligence–led investigations and enforcement actions to target organised crime groups within the supply chain from source, transit and demand countries.
  • The use of controlled deliveries to disrupt organised crime groups engaged in the illegal trade of traditional medicines containing wildlife products, and exchange of best practice with experienced users of this method, such as the Russian Federation.
  • A tactical analysis on the use of the internet by organised crime groups to facilitate the illegal trade in wildlife.

Europol Website