20/04/2017 08:08 BST | Updated 20/04/2017 08:08 BST

What Does Brexit Mean For Wildlife Trafficking?

Stan Osolinski via Getty Images

It seems we can't speak about anything these days without the implications of Brexit being raised, and politicians arguing with equal gusto that the outcomes will be either hugely beneficial or utterly disastrous.

The future for wildlife is no different. Much of our law protecting to the environment and the natural world comes from Europe. The extent to which the UK will retain or change this legislation following Brexit hangs in the balance.

While our Government has sought to reassure us that nature is safe in their hands and that they intend to make good on their manifesto commitment to be 'the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than that in which we found it', its commitment to wildlife and the environment has recently been brought into question. DEFRA seems to be backtracking on its 25 Year Plan for the Environment. Newspaper reports have suggested that action on climate change and illegal wildlife trade might be 'scaled down' as we seek new trade deals in a post-Brexit world.

DEFRA and its agencies have also seen swathing cuts to departmental budgets and staff in recent years, and there are serious concerns over whether they are capable of delivering the kind of outcome from Brexit that is critical to the future of our environment and wildlife.

Wildlife trafficking is a major issue of concern. Worth an estimated US$20 billion annually, it is widely thought to be the fourth largest form of illegal trade. At least 20,000 elephants are being gunned down by poachers every year for their tusks. Rhinos, tigers, lions, pangolins and a host of other species are in the sights of poachers and traffickers. Organised criminal networks see wildlife as a low risk-high return commodity, and their activities devastate populations of threatened species of animals and plants and may disrupt economic, political and social stability among some of the world's most vulnerable communities.

In 2014, the UK Government hosted a high-level international conference bringing together global leaders to help eradicate wildlife trafficking and better protect the world's most iconic species from the threat of extinction. At the summit, Prince William promised delegates that "we will stay the course with you until you succeed", and the Government published a document emphasising its commitment to ending the illegal wildlife trade.

This conference has been followed by two further meetings in Botswana and Vietnam. London will host the fourth in the series next year.

But in order to be a credible host in 2018, The UK must remain at the forefront of international efforts to tackle the problem. That means ensuring our own rules on wildlife trade are strengthened, not weakened, when we leave the EU. It also means pursuing the policies and committing the resources needed to deal with illegal wildlife trade in our own back yard.

Leaked documents suggesting that work on wildlife trafficking might be ''scaled down' in favour of trade and growth don't inspire much confidence.

In order to retain credibility as a world leader on this issue, the UK must commit, as a minimum, to transposing all aspects of the EU's Wildlife Trade Regulations (which go well beyond our international commitments to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in many respects) into UK law when we leave the EU, fully adopt and implement the EU Action Plan Against Wildlife Trafficking, and take decisive action to stem ivory trade to reflect the actions of other key countries.

As we go forward into a new independent era, the UK should seek the highest levels of international protection for wildlife against illegal trade at CITES and other forums, and be prepared to set an example by implementing the strictest of domestic measures.

Perhaps most importantly, the UK must make measurable action on wildlife trafficking a precondition for any trade deals negotiated with other countries post-Brexit, and tie such action to overseas aid.

Our global trading relations will be hugely important to our economic security when we leave the EU. But whatever the make-up of our Government following the upcoming General Election, it must not be allowed to sacrifice the future of wildlife and the natural world on the altar of trade.