Illegal trade is bad – full stop!

What do the world of crop protection and the world of nature conservation have in common?  The dangers of illegal trade in unacceptable goods.  For the pesticide industry the problem is counterfeit and illegal substances, for the conservation community it is the trafficking of protected species.

I was quite surprised to learn during the recent annual assembly of the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) that one of their big problems is that 7 to 10% of the plant protection products traded on the European market at not “the real thing”.  They are either counterfeit products, which are basically imitations of registered chemicals and there are illegal materials which are not registered at all.  In both cases the products are untested, unauthorised and introduced by criminal networks.  ECPA estimates that the total market of counterfeit and illegal plant protection products amounts to €1billion per annum in Europe alone, and more than €4.4billion globally.

This made me think of the challenges that nature conservation organisations have in relation to trade in animal products, such as tiger bones, bear gall bladders, turtle shells and sharks fins.  According to TRAFFIC-the wildlife trade monitoring network, the value of illegal wildlife trade, excluding timber and fisheries, is estimated at USD 8 to 10 billion per annum.

We have the advantage that there is a global Convention against illegal trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora (CITES), but the problems of registration, documentation and recognition by untrained officials are the same in both cases.  Quite possibly, the criminal gangs are the same as well, or at least they are most likely inter-connected

The next, sixteenth CITES Conference of Parties is taking place in Bangkok from 3 to 14 March next year, but recently the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton made a call for action about wildlife trade, and the USA has designated 4 December as Wildlife conservation Day. (

Maybe this increased interest in dealing with wildlife trafficking and illegal trade in plant control products is an unexpected opportunity for two groups of society that often have a very different agenda to work together.  Training of customs officers, border guards and police could be done in partnership, liaison with Interpol and other international legal authorities could be streamlined, awareness campaigns could be harmonised.

I have facilitated contact between TRAFFIC and ECPA, and let’s see what we can do together.

Invasive species – a serious problem in Europe?

I had several interesting discussions recently about invasive species.  Is this such a problem in Europe, you may ask.  Well – think again: in 2009, the Institute for European Environmental Policy estimated that control of Invasive species and repairing damage caused by them cost the European Union € 20 Billion per year!

While our native species have resistance to local pests or diseases, they often have no, of few, defences against attacks from foreign bodies.  One may ask whether the current problem with the ash trees in the UK is a result of infection by a disease caused by an invasive organism.  Similarly, there are cases of foreign beetles that bore into trees in Switzerland, where I live.  More than half of the British Isles do not have their native brown squirrels any longer, as they have been displaced by foreign species.  And the list goes on, and on…

Gray squirrels may look cute and harmless but they are responsible for driving the European red squirrel toward extinction.

Internationally, the problems are well recognised, and the Convention on Biological Diversity obliges parties to the Convention (and that is now everybody apart from the USA) to “prevent the introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species”.  More recently, the 10th Conference of Parties of the Convention that took place in Nagoya, Japan in 2010 developed the 20 Aichi Targets.  These are now universally accepted as the targets for nature conservation, and target 9 states that “by 2020 Invasive Alien Species and their pathways are identified and prioritised, priority species are controlled or eradicated and measures are in place to manage pathways to prevent their introduction and establishment”.

So – what is happening closer to home?  Dealing with Invasive Alien Species is identified as one of the six main objectives of the EU biodiversity strategy, and the Council of Europe, to which the EU is a member, has developed a comprehensive European strategy on invasive alien species.  But, this is not enough.

The European Commission is in the process of developing a new legal instrument to deal with Invasive Alien Species.  If this is developed in the way it is planned, it will be the third nature-focused directive of the European Commission, after the Habitats and Bird Directives that have been in place for years already.  That would be a statement!

Yet, even with a legal instrument, the actual work has to happen on the ground and in the water.  IUCN and its Invasive Species Specialist Group are ready to help its members tackle this problem.  We have identified cities as one of the first entry points, and are discussing with some of our partners and Members how to develop a set of specific actions.  Are you ready to help?

How wild is Europe?

Last week I talked with the organisers of the 10th World Wilderness Congress (WILD10) that will take place in Salamanca, Spain from 4 to 10 October 2013. The agenda is global, but WILD10 will obviously have a European focus. HM Queen Sofia of Spain has agreed to be the Honorary President of WILD10.

In May 2009, more than 230 representatives from governments, conservation agencies, NGOs and academic institutions met in Prague at the “Conference on Wilderness and Large Natural Habitat Areas” hosted by the Czech European Union Presidency and the European Commission. This conference launched the Wild Europe movement, and the Re-wilding Europe initiative.

IUCN has a global definition that reads that: “wilderness areas are usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural conditions”. The Wild Europe Initiative has developed its own definition of wilderness in Europe, which is aligned with the IUCN wording.

In both cases the emphasis is on the low level of modification and the lack of human habitation. That made me think what wilderness really means in West Europe, as I have always believed that one of the features of the landscape in Europe is the fact that a lot has been modified over the centuries, and very little is really undisturbed. Is there really much true wilderness left in West Europe?

Restoring degraded land to nature is the objective of the Re-wilding Europe initiative which aims to create at least 1 million hectares of new wild lands in Europe. The first five areas that they are tackling are mainly in the eastern part of Europe, and while I applaud their efforts, I wonder where to find land that can be restored to wilderness in West Europe. My second concern is how wild these new areas will be, taking into account competing interests from farmers, developers and tourists.

These issues will be part of the discussions at WILD10 next year, but if you have any views now, it would be nice to get your reaction.


It is now July 2013, and the Wild10 congress is only a few months away.  The latest information is on their website.


The question of what wilderness means in Western Europe remains, and I welcome your thoughts.  

You may not have realised that the landscape in Europe needs restoration, but the 2010 biodiversity assessment by the European Environment Agency reports that 65% of habitat assessments in the EU are unfavourable, and only 17% is in good shape.  Target 2 of the EU Biodiversity Strategy therefore focuses on restoring 15% of degraded ecosystems in Europe by 2020, and this is fully in line with the global Aichi target 15. 

Will the discussions in Spain result in improvement of the state of nature for Europe?  We will have to wait and see!