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Criminal Law

Shady Dealings in Protected Species

The illegal trade in animals and plants is a highly profitable and low-risk business. Due to inconsistent application and lax enforcement of laws in many countries, criminals get an easy ride. Students at UZH are looking for solutions to the problem.
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Protected and highly prized: The pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater, is the world’s most smuggled species. (Picture: IStock)

Most people have never heard of pangolins – but these scaled insect-eating mammals with their characteristic tube-shaped snouts and sharp digging claws are the most smuggled animals in the world. Meat from the animal is a delicacy in some countries and in addition the scales are ground and used in traditional Chinese medicine as a salve for a myriad of ailments. Trade in these animals and their products is prohibited according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This convention regulates trade in protected animals by issuing outright bans or requiring certain permits.

Protected animals as souvenirs

Illegal trade in animals and plants comes in a variety of guises. Sometimes it is carried out by criminal organizations which run systematic operations trading protected species such as the pangolin.

Often however, people are unaware that they are committing a crime. For example tourists might carry animals or animal products across borders to take them home as souvenirs without being aware of the legal restrictions. Sellers of exotic souvenirs are quick to assure people that the plants they are selling come from farms and the animals from breeding centers and therefore can be exported to their home country without any problems. But breeders’ certificates are no replacement for species protection documents.

Found items such as pieces of coral or shells collected on the beach or exotic leaves and colorful feathers may also be legally problematic: If such items come from animals or plants that are a protected species, it is usually illegal to export them.

Low risks, high profits

As a research area of law, illegal trade in plants and animals receives little serious attention in the German-speaking world. And in practice the crimes are also often seen as insignificant. This is due on the one hand to the fact that there are parallel legal and illegal markets thus making illegal trade hard to monitor. Another problem is that for this type of crime the stakes are low and the rewards are high. Authorities in most countries prefer to use their resources to combat crimes that they see as more important, meaning that the criminals can often get away without a conviction.

International teaching format

In the Spring Semester of 2019, the universities of Queensland, Vienna and Zurich are jointly running a seminar called “Trafficking in Fauna and Flora: The Illegal Trade in Wildlife, Animal Parts and Plants.” Within this international setting, experts and students are carrying out pioneering research work. Under the leadership of law professor Christian Schwarzenegger and senior teaching and research assistant Gian Ege, both of the University of Zurich, and law professor Andreas Schloenhardt of the universities of Vienna and Queensland, the participating students and experts tackle the issues in a “joint classroom” environment. 

“Joint classrooms” are courses that are run simultaneously by several partner universities. This seminar uses blended-learning, i.e. a mix of traditional classroom sessions and modern e-learning tools.

Students contribute to research

The participating students have the opportunity to take an in-depth look at a topic that is of high relevance for today’s society, at the same time as acquiring international contacts. They also receive guidance through special workshops on conducting research, on academic writing and on publishing studies. The aim is to enable the students to produce outstanding academic papers identifying problems in tackling trafficking of flora and fauna and suggesting solutions, for publication in a collection. The students will thereby be making an important contribution to research in law and ultimately to the fight against illegal animal trading.