top of page

To what extent does the UK's legal response to the International Wildlife trade affected by the lack



This essay aims to explore and analyze the lack of proper sentencing in the UK for the illegal wildlife trade. The UK has become a 'soft spot' for international buyers and suppliers because of the disproportioned sentencing structure. Due to the lack of set guidelines to help judges, imprisonment is easily appealed in which the penalties have given fall massively. According to the WWF, the HM customs seized more than 570 illegal wildlife items every day, which equals 1 million, however, the fines levied equated to just 9 pence per item seized. In addition, there was a report analyzing the surge in crimes and it states that "criminal proceeds were confiscated only 6 out of 41 prosecutions in the five years to July 2021, the amount peaked in 2017 at £109,000 and fell to just £2,455 in 2020.”


Today the number of wild Flora and Fauna are becoming increasingly endangered for many different purposes. According to the statistics provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are 41,415 species on the red list and 16,306 of them are endangered species with a threat of extinction. This is because annually international wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars and includes hundreds of millions of plants and animal specimens. This trade includes a diverse, ranging from 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. Some animals and plants experience a very high level of exploitation in trade, this trend is capable of heavily depleting their population and even bringing some species close to extinction. This essay intends to analyze to what extent the legal responsibility of the United Kingdom to the international wildlife trade is affected by the lack of proper conviction. This essay will explore two main aspects first being the lack of proportionate sentencing/penalties, and the second being the lack of prosecution altogether.

Discerption of the main problem:

The main problem in the UK regarding the international wildlife trade is its legal framework and the lack of proper sentencing for convicts. It is not in the interest of any nation today to be seen as a market for illegal international wildlife trade, especially in the case of endangered species. Even though the UK is a continuous advocate for the illegal wildlife trade, its legal framework is a patchwork and has several areas worth considering for improvement. The UK legal framework is characterized by; low criminal penalties, inconsistent and different judicial or administrative sanctions, depending on the agency involved in the investigation or enforcement, and an uninformed approach to a damaging illicit trade with a far-reaching impact on the sustainability of species and habits. For example, in the case of the Renaissance Corporation, the company admitted to trading shawls made from shahtoosh wool, which comes from Tibetan antelope, a critically endangered species, the company had imported £353,000 of shawls. Despite the seriousness of this issue, the UK merely fined the company £1,500. This shows how the protection of the wildlife trade has never been the UK's highest priority or legislative agenda. Furthermore, the UK has signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and uses the legislature, "The Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997" (COTES), which has now been replaced by the “The Control of Trade in Endangered Species 2018.” However, once a criminal is past the Customs, and illegally trades endangered species was not even an arrestable offense under the UK legislation, COTES 1997. In addition, the illegal wildlife trade within the UK has only increased in 2020 due to the pandemic the government's priorities shifted. Reports found that in 2020 crimes against badgers rose by 36%, crimes against marine mammals in Cornwall jumped by 90%, and the conviction rate fell almost two-thirds from 2020. This shows how the main issue in the UK regarding the illegal wildlife trade is the incompetence of the legal team, in making arrests and punishing the convicts proportionately.


The two principal aspects that display the lack of legal response to the illegal wildlife trade in the UK are the lack of sentencing proportionately, and the extremely low level of accused being convicted in the first place. Firstly, the lack of proper convictions and sentencing structure in England and Wales, the main factor for those involved in the illegal wildlife trade is financial gain. The common belief for the legal structure is "too lenient to achieve deterrence or to be considered commensurate with the harm caused." To the 2002 report by Lowther, Cook, and Roberts, the UK is extremely critical of the sentences passed, and typically fines are passed that are not commensurate with the profits gained from the trading of endangered species. The case of Renaissance corporation is the perfect example, where they traded shawls made from endangered Tibetan antelope worth £350,000 and were merely fined £1,500. This leniency continues within the UK with barely fining people or convicting with appropriate sentencing. Another example of this leniency, in 2017 an auction house was fined just £1,500 for selling hippo incisors, a sperm whale tooth, and five pieces of elephant ivory (including tusks). Even though the maximum sentencing for such a crime is 5 years imprisonment and unlimited fines, the UK courts are like states before are extremely critical. Another notable case is the smuggling of eels by Gilbert Khoo, between 2015-2017 he smuggled ‘glass eels’ that are slowly becoming endangered and were worth £53,265,000. However, Mr. Khoo was merely sentenced to 24 months of imprisonment on every three counts. Similarly, in the case of R. v Eely, there was a violation of COTES 1985, 'attempting to sell more than 120 horns' worth £2.88 million and was again poorly sentenced to merely 15 months in prison.

On the other side, some key examples display a harsher sentence in the UK for the illegal wildlife trade. For example, in the case of Sissen (2001), where a rare parrot breeder was found guilty of offenses under CEMA relating to Lear' macaws and blue-headed macaws. He was sentenced to 30 months of imprisonment on each count, however, reduced to 18 months on appeal. Another example is the Humphrey (2003) where the defendant was convicted on several accounts under COTES and theft and sentenced to a total of 6 and a half years in prison. However, again this was reduced to only one year by appeal. It was noted in all these cases that the offenses were extremely serious, and the Court of Appeal in Humphrey supported the trial judge in passing an exemplary sentence. Nevertheless, in these cases, all of them appealed and indeed received the result they were hoping for, which was a shorter sentence. Furthermore, the reports by the WWF state that HM customs seized more than 570 illegal wildlife items every day, which equals 1 million during giving year period studies, however, the fine levied equated to just 9 pence per item seized. This displays the lack of a proper legal structure in the UK in terms of the illegal wildlife trade and the lack of seriousness related to the issue, as all of these imply that the court's first sentences were adjured to have a sentence incorrectly.

Moving further to address the second principal issue, the UK doesn't convict or take any legal actions against more than half the people breaking the laws set out for the illegal wildlife trade. Britain seized less than £2,500 from criminals involved in the illegal wildlife trade, even though there was an extreme surge in offenses of species during the lockdown and beginning of the pandemic. There was a report analyzing the surge in crimes and it states that "criminal proceeds were confiscated only 6 out of 41 prosecutions in the five years to July 2021. The amount peaked in 2017 at £109,000 and fell to just £2,455 in 2020." This is because a vast majority of the wildlife products seized by the official in the UK are destroyed with absolutely no consequences for the criminals. The WWF conducted a report, and it shows that “wildlife crime pays in the UK”, Stuart Chapman, WWF’s Head of Species Programme stated, “We believe the seizures we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg of illegal wildlife trade in the UK. Wildlife criminals see the UK as a soft touch and it's time the Government acted to change this." According to the reports and studies conducted display that the volume of raw Ivory seized per year fell from 40,000Kg to merely under 5,000kg. Similarly, the total volume of Pangolin scale seized fell from 100,000kgs to just around 20,000Kgs. This shows how the already the UK was lacking behind in its legal response to the illegal wildlife trade and fell even more during the pandemic. The UK is slowly becoming a soft 'spot or a hub' for the illegal wildlife trade because of the lack of convictions, consequences, and actions being taken by the legal system.

There are several steps that the UK can take to improve the current legal structure around the lack of proper sentencing. In the UK in the case of drug smuggling, the court can refer to statutory provisions, precedents, sentencing guidelines, past experiences, and more. On the other hand, in the case of illegal wildlife trade, the maximum available sentence and the statutory purposes of punishment will apply, but likely there are little or no precedents and no guidelines. Consequently, considering the rarity of convictions, their judge is likely to have minimum or no experience of such cases and bare minimum knowledge of the impact of the harm being caused by the accused. Therefore, WWF believes that setting out a proper guideline that reflects the harm caused will help the judges make proportionate sentencing. Similarly, St. John Edward and Jones's 2012 report, and the Environmental Audit Committee 2012 report both states the need for proper guidelines, "urge sentencing councils to develop appropriate guidelines to support judiciaries in their sentencing of wildlife crime.” Another form of reform needed in the legal repones in the UK is considering if the current penalties had sufficient deterrent effect. In the UK the maximum sentencing is only given out to the 'worst cases', however, again there are no guidelines for the judges to help them decide what the worst case would look like because they aren't aware of the amount of harm being caused. This shows how the UK legal framework around illegal wildlife trade still needs extensive work and has massive gaps for improvement. There is an absolute need for a stricter legal structure, guidelines, and stronger officers to ensure that all crimes are reported and prosecuted.


To conclude, the legal response to the illegal wildlife trade in the UK has several issues but the main two problems tackled and addressed are the lack of convictions and the lack of proper sentencing. Firstly, focusing on the lack of proper sentencing, the UK is known to be a soft sport of illegal wildlife traders because of being too lenient when prosecuting the convicts. In the UK the convictions usually end up with bare minimum fines and no imprisonment, however, in some cases when imprisonment is sentenced, the appeal cases take off most of the time. As seen through the example of the Renaissance corporation where the fine was only £1,500 for a crime worth £350,00. On the other hand, in cases like Sissen and Humphrey, the appeal cases took most of the imprisonment time off. This displays the clear structure in the UK's legal system as this implies that the court's first sentences were adjured to have a sentence incorrectly. Secondly, the lack of proper convictions, Britain merely seized less than £2,500 from criminals involved in illegal wildlife crimes, even though, there was a major surge of crimes during the pandemic. Furthermore, the UK only confiscated 6 out of 41 prosecutions in five years in 2021. This shows why the UK is a soft spot for criminals.

There are several ways to tackle this, in the UK the main legislature used to address illegal wildlife trade is The Control of Trade of Endangered Species 2018. This legislature provides the judge with a basic structure, however, the lack of awareness within the judges needs to be addressed by set guidelines that can inform them about the seriousness of the crimes being committed. This is because of zero to no prior experience while dealing with illegal wildlife trade, for example, the judges have precedents and acts to rely on while dealing with other smuggling, however, barely anything when it comes to illegal wildlife trade because of the major lack of prosecution, to begin with. This shows how the UK's legal framework around illegal wildlife trade needs to be improved the sentencing needs to make bold statements for the criminals to think twice before acting and considering the UK a soft spot.

Works Cited:

WWF. 2002. One million illegal wildlife items seized at UK ports and airports. [online] Available at:

<> [Accessed 10 April 2022].

Kasnoff, C., 2022. Endangered Earth – Promoting the Plight of Endangered Species and the Efforts to Save Them.

[online] Available at:

< ECIES%3A,endangered%20animals%20and%20endangered%20plants> [Accessed 10 April 2022]. 2022. What is CITES? | CITES. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 9 April 2022].

Lowther, J., cook, D. and Roberts, M., 2002. Crime and punishment in the wildlife trade. [online] University of Wolverhampton: WWF. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 April 2022].

Vidal, J., 2022. UK a haven for traffickers of rare species. [online] the Guardian. Available at:

<> [Accessed 19 April 2022].

Carrington D, 'Reports Of Wildlife Crime Surged In England And Wales In 2020 – Survey' (the Guardian, 2022) <> accessed 21 April 2022

The Control of Trade in Endangered Species and Trade 2018

The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017

Ivory Act 2018


(EU EXIT) REGULATIONS 2018' (, 2022)


The_Trade_in_Endangered_Species_of_Wild_Fauna_and_Flora__Amendment___EU_Exit__Regulations _2018.pdf> accessed 2 May 2022

The Control of Trade in Endangered Species 2018, 16(1)(j)(2)

Firm Fined for illegal Shahtoosh Shawls, Independent, April 13, 2000, 7. Also reported in Daily Telegraph, April 13, 2000, 8

R. v Eley (David Colin), R. v Bull (Wilfred George), [1998] 6 WLUK 389

'Enforcement Of The Ivory Act 2018 And Guidance On The Use Of Civil Sanctions' (Department for environment food and usual affairs 2021) <> accessed 5 May 2022

R. v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, [2020] Env. L.R. 14

It Looks Like You Might Be A Little Lost' (WWF, 2022)



Sentencing%20wildlife%20trade%20offences%20in%20England%20and%20Wales.pdf> accessed 8 May 2022

Rust N, 'Tougher Sentencing Needed For Wildlife Trade Crimes' (WWF, 2017)

<> accessed 5 May 2022

'Seafood Salesman Smuggled £53M Worth Of Live Eels Out Of UK' (BBC News, 2020)

<> accessed 8 May 2022




Sentencing%20wildlife%20trade%20offences%20in%20England%20and%20Wales.pdf> accessed 04 May 2022

Weston M, 'Suppressed by The COVID Pandemic, The Illegal Wildlife Trade Is Now Getting Back into Full Swing - EIA' (, 2022) <> accessed 10 May 2022

'The UK Commitment to Action on The Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) - An Update' (HM Government


< 5562/iwt-commitment-action.pdf> accessed 13 May 2022

ST JOHN, FREYA A. V., GARETH EDWARDS-JONES, and JULIA P. G. JONES. “Opinions of the Public, Conservationists and Magistrates on Sentencing Wildlife Trade Crimes in the UK.” Environmental Conservation 39, no. 2 (2012): 154–61. <> accessed on 09th may 2022

House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee: Sustainability, seventh report, 2013-2014, by the House of Commons


bottom of page