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Illegal Trade - CITES

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What is illegal trade in wildlife?

International wildlife trade is thought to be worth billions of dollars and to include hundreds of millions of plant and animal specimens (more information on wildlife trade). Trade ranges from that in live animals and plants to a vast array of wildlife products derived from them, including food products, exotic leather goods, wooden musical instruments, timber, tourist curios and medicines.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) was set up to protect a wide range of wildlife, including animals, birds, reptiles, plants and trees, whose populations could be threatened by over exploitation from trade. Currently over 33,000 species are protected by CITES. Whilst many wildlife species in trade are not endangered, CITES makes sure that trade is carried out in a sustainable way that ensures the long-term survival of traded species. It has been very successful in this respect. 178 countries have signed the CITES Convention.

Species protected by CITES can only be traded if certain permits and licences have been issued by a recognised 'Management Authority' in member countries. For the most endangered species, such as most populations of elephants and many species of turtles and orchid, trade is only permitted in very exceptional circumstances.

Whilst not an exhaustive list, illegal activities could include;

  • smuggling CITES species into the UK from outside the EU
  • trading in CITES species on the Internet
  • offering to sell CITES listed species without the correct permits.

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Why does it matter?

Figures issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in July 2009 reported that a third of amphibians, a quarter of mammals and one in eight birds are threatened with extinction. Habitat destruction, through agriculture, deforestation and development, is the main threat but climate change could also have an impact on species. In some animal and plant species the trade in them, along with other factors such as habitat destruction, is capable of heavily depleting their populations and even bringing them close to extinction.

Continued loss of species has an impact on this planet's fantastic variety of life and it takes the removal of just one species to upset the ecological balance of an area, region or country.

Whilst sustainable trade offers a livelihood to many poor and developing countries, it is thought a lot of wildlife trade is underpinned by criminals. Good efforts are being made in the UK to tackle the illegal trade in CITES species by both police and customs officers.

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What does the law say?

If you are found guilty of trading CITES species without the correct paperwork you could be sent to prison for up to five years, receive an unlimited fine or both.

You may also be committing import or export offences and for that you could go to prison for seven years, receive an unlimited fine, or both.

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What can I do?

Travelling: You should only buy a wildlife souvenir if you are sure it does not come from an endangered species.

If you do not know

  1. what species it comes from
  2. whether you need a CITES export permit from the country you are buying the item in
  3. whether the EU CITES personal effects derogation applies
  4. whether any other legislation applies i.e. POAO (Products of Animal Origin Regulations)

you risk breaking the law and having your goods seized by the UK Border Agency when you return to the UK. In some cases you could even be prosecuted.

This also applies to goods purchased over the internet. In addition, the EU personal effects derogation does not apply to goods bought over the internet or sent by post.

Traditional Medicines: The packaging of traditional medicines usually provides a list of the ingredients contained within the product, including the protected species. Recently it has been noticed that some of the controlled specimens are missing from the ingredients list, although the remainder of the packing remains the same.

Some products such as "Tiger Balm", which is readily available in many high street stores, will have a picture of a tiger on the front of the packaging, but this is a trade name; the product contains no tiger parts or other protected species. Please check the contents first but if you aware of businesses selling products that you suspect contain illegal animal or plant products contact your local wildlife crime officer. The ingredients may not be listed, but the science available to test for them is constantly developing.

Red cross - 2 tone As a rule - if you are unsure don't buy it.

You can find more information about CITES at:

CITES website

Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (UK)

HM Revenue and Customs

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