Today is UN World Wildlife Day, an opportunity to celebrate the stunning diversity of flora and fauna around the planet and raise awareness about the importance of conserving it. This year, people and organisations all over the world have rallied around a simple yet vitally important theme: "It's time to get serious about wildlife crime."
Soaring rates of poaching are decimating wild populations of species such as elephants, rhinos and tigers, driven by rising demand in East Asia. Unless we take action now, these animals will be consigned to the history books within our lifetimes. The illegal ivory trade has already seen 100,000 elephants killed in the past two years. At this rate, African elephants in the wild could be wiped out within 10 years.
But as well as driving many endangered species to the brink of extinction, wildlife crime has become a lucrative source of income for armed and terrorist groups, fuelling instability and conflict. Worth an estimated $20 billion a year, it is now the fourth largest illegal trade in the world after drugs, arms, and people-trafficking. Combatting this illegal trade is not only essential for conservation, it is crucial in order to build peace and security in some of the world's most troubled regions. From Al Shabab in Somalia to Boko Haram in Nigeria, ending wildlife crime is central to the wider fight against organised crime and terrorism.
The EU already plays a major role in the fight against wildlife crime, adopting strict rules against the trafficking of endangered species and committing millions of euros towards conservation efforts. But it could do a lot more. For a start, the EU could propose tougher minimum penalties across Europe for wildlife criminals, set up a dedicated wildlife crime unit in Europol and increase funding for anti-poaching efforts in developing countries.
That is why this week I am launching the cross-party MEPs for Wildlife Group to put the fight against the wildlife crime at the top of the EU's agenda. Led by one MEP from each of the European Parliament's seven political groups, it will build support across the political spectrum for an EU Action Plan against Wildlife Crime. A comprehensive EU Action Plan would ensure that coordinated action is taken across all areas, from development aid to police cooperation. Last year MEPs overwhelmingly backed a resolution calling on the European Commission to come up with such a plan. Now it is up to the Commission to deliver it.
Momentum is now building as governments around the world wake up to the threat wildlife crime poses to global security. China has just announced a ban on ivory imports ahead of this week's visit by Prince William. Both the US and UK have made tackling wildlife crime a foreign policy priority. Yet the EU has still not accorded this pressing issue the importance it deserves. We cannot wait any longer. It is time for the EU to show it is serious about tackling wildlife crime.