This article first appeared in the February 2022 edition of Birdwatching Magazine
The Ecological Police are a unit of the National Panama Police. They are in charge of ensuring the safety of all of Panama´s protected areas. Every day, they walk hundreds of miles patrolling during day and night, in order to fight against illegal hunting and deforestation, contamination, and more recently, performing wildlife rescues of injured animals.
Panama is a small poor country. Tourism is a big earner of Dollars and Euros, but that is only part of the motivation. Like neighbouring Costa Rica, it is understood that happiness and conservation are intimately linked. The happiest countries in the world also have the most national parks as a proportion of their land.
So, what do we do, one of the world’s richest countries? The answer is: ‘not a lot!’ The very best police forces have a designated ‘wildlife officer’. In some cases, this is the equivalent of a ‘designated first-aider’ – only called upon if someone collapses in a heap, the wildlife officer may spend 90% of their time on other duties. Even the most enlightened only have one, usually lowest tier, officer. They have to deal with everything from dogs worrying sheep to runaway horses. It’s a miracle that any egg-collector ever gets caught or anyone killing a schedule one species ever face prosecution.
Given this lack of official concern it is left to not-for-profit organisations to go to court to enforce the paltry wildlife laws we have. As with much of our establishment run country, even the bodies responsible for such things give far too much leeway to landowner and farming lobbies with little regard for how the majority of us feel.
Meanwhile raptor nestlings are still taken for overseas falconers, hen harriers’ eggs are stamped on, hunts ‘accidentally’ pursue foxes and hares are chased by louts with lurchers. Wildlife crime is simply not the powers-that-be’s priority. Such crimes are treated as less enforced than parking fines and less prosecuted than speeding drivers.
Over decades the UK debated establishing a national crime database. Amid concerns over freedoms the network of local forces missed major criminals through lack of joined up policing. Eventually, it was recognised that certain crimes were organised on a geographical scale and regional squads came into being to tackle them, often uniting officers from different forces.
Wildlife crime in the UK has its organised side, but, for the most part its local but ubiquitous. Because enforcement is local and low priority many get away with flouting the law.
It’s time we tackled these national problems on a national level and gave sufficient resources to have an impact. A lone police constable with little ‘pull’ and hardly any time is not best placed to prove raptor persecution on an estate where trespassers are prosecuted and the local landowner might even be the local magistrate!
Regional Wildlife Crime squads could pursue the national population’s priorities and stamp out some types of crime altogether. Landowners taken to the high court for allowing (instructing) their employees to poison birds of prey need a few short sharp examples made. Fining the rich is no deterrent, but imprisonment or land confiscation would be. I doubt many would go on shooting beavers or badgers if they could land up in gaol. If hare coursers had they vehicles and dogs immediately confiscated, few would find their bloody ‘sport’ as enjoyable.
Millions sign petitions calling for re-wildling, more conservation and stiffer planning rules, while government pay lip-service and relax regulations. A national ecological police force would not have to be huge or expensive to be fast to response, able to collect evidence and free to bring legal action.