By Simon Bloch
Durban - The European Commission has closed a major loophole exploited by criminal gangs trafficking in high-value hunting trophies that carry tusks and horns.
This follows the dismantling of a number of organised crime syndicates illegally trading wildlife products across the European Union, particularly illegal ivory tusks and rhino horn from South Africa.
The changes are directly linked to what has been recognised as a huge regulatory void – an EU import permit verification system for rhino horns, elephant ivory tusks, and other high value African-species trophies was never required by EU member states.
With sky-rocketing prices for ivory and rhino horn, a new breed of hunter and wildlife trafficking syndicates has emerged, exploiting international CITES (Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species) protocols governing the import of sustainably-hunted animal trophies.
The changes were inked into legislation in January this year, and take effect from Thursday.
According to the new requirements, hunting trophies of six listed, threatened or endangered species obtained through the result of sustainable hunting will have to be accompanied by an import permit indicating details of the legal hunt.
The legislation aims to specifically address issues around the illegal imports, by introducing the mandatory requirement of hunting-trophy import permits for the species.
The six species covered under the new regulations are the African elephant, Southern white rhinoceros, African lion, hippopotamus, Polar bear and Argali sheep.
In December and January the Czech Republic State Prosecution Authority charged 19 people in two separate cases, for illegally trafficking in rhino horns that were allegedly fraudulently obtained from South African safari hunts.
Evidence presented in a Prague court in December 2014, and January this year, connects Czech Republic-based Vietnamese syndicates that recruited pseudo-hunters to source rhino horns from a number of South African hunting farms.
Included in the prosecution’s evidence are several rhino horns hunted at the Limpopo farm Prachtig, owned by controversial Out Of Africa Safaris owner, Dawie Groenewald.
The hunters were compelled by the gangs to relinquish the trophies after they had been exported from South African taxidermists.
While as many as 24 rhino horns were seized - suspicious paperwork showed horns were only insured for $50 each, and destined to be transshipped to Vietnam - EU authorities believe more than 100 horns have been shipped from the EU, to Vietnam, especially from eastern Europe, where Vietnamese syndicates control the illegal wildlife traffic.
In 2014, collaboration between French, German and Czech authorities also saw several Vietnamese traffickers arrested in the EU, and large quantities of illegally-obtained African elephant tusks seized.
Several cases of smuggling of lion and tiger parts has also been uncovered.
CITES (Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species) is an internationally-binding protocol set up in 1973 to regulate and protect the trade in wild fauna and flora, but has no legal teeth to prosecute citizens of sovereign states.
Its 180 member states party to the agreement are supposed to manage and police trade of both live and hunted listed animals according to their listed-appendix status, but this was near impossible without a species-listed verification system.
CITES stipulates that CITES listed hunting trophies must remain in the possession of the listed hunter, and cannot be traded or re-exported.
The necessity for import permits will also allow the EU to prohibit imports of trophies from countries where the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations' Scientific Review Group has made a determination that trophy hunting of the species is not sustainable.
As of Thursday, no further imports of lion trophies from Benin, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon, where the populations have plummeted due to over-hunting and human wildlife conflict, will be permitted by the EU.
Until now, the authorities in EU member states had no checks in place that ensured trophies from these species imported to the EU were the result of sustainable hunting.
Import permits will only be delivered to the hunter by the EU importing member state once that EU authority is convinced that the import meets criteria demonstrating that it is sustainable.
If the criteria are not met, the import will not be possible.
The new measures also make it clear that import permits should not be issued by EU member states in cases where no satisfactory information has been obtained from the exporting, or re-exporting country, regarding the legality of wildlife products to be imported.
This will create a solid basis for member states to act when they deal with shipments whose legality is in doubt.
Prior to the latest changes that cover the six listed species, it was only necessary for an EU resident-hunter to obtain a CITES export permit for hunting trophies from the issuing authority in the country where the hunts occurred.
Any EU member state can now request a cessation of import of those species across the EU.
That request will then be assessed by the Review Group, and they can then keep the ban in place until the exporting country files a "non-detriment" report - including population status and conservation measures put in place.
If the non-detriment report is accepted, import will again be allowed. If it is rejected the ban will become final.