Illegal trading: Follow that badger!

There's a new weapon in the fight against poachers, nest raiders and ivory traders. Josh Sims meets the policemen hot on the trail of Britain's beastliest criminals.
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The Independent Online

From badger baiting to illegal ivory trading, as part of the new Wildlife Crime Unit, PC Paul Henery is out to bust Britain's beastliest crimes.

It has been a busy few months for Paul Henery, of Northumbria's police force. Earlier this year, acting on a tip-off from an informant, he conducted a search at two premises believed to be the bases of a thief of and dealer in rare birds' eggs. Maps, guidebooks and climbing equipment were all found at the houses, as were, on closer inspection, eggs from a number of endangered species - hidden in the loft, even in compartments under the floorboards. The thief was arrested and later found guilty of taking the eggs. As it was a first offence, he got 180 hours of community service. If there's a next time, it will mean prison.

Henery is the UK's longest-standing wildlife crime officer - there are only six full-time police officers with this specialist role nationwide - and 2006's WWF Wildlife Law Enforcer of the Year. His work has encompassed everything from badger-baiting to the illegal trade in elephant ivory. But his job is, in theory, about to get much easier. Last month saw the launch of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), a pilot organisation established in 2002 and now, following a commitment of £200,000 by Defra earlier this year, put on a permanent, active footing.

The new organisation of 14 staff aims to be far-reaching, with the injection allowing it to relocate, expand, broaden its remit and set up an operational arm. It has also now won status as a multi-agency, standalone, police-led unit. Previously, the unit worked covertly, providing the police with intelligence that often led to prosecutions, but now, according to its head Chris Kerr, an officer seconded from Cleveland Police, it is taking a more pro-active stance, with a team of roving enforcement support officers assisting police and customs in wildlife crime investigations.

"Wildlife crime can probably never be a top priority for the police - there's always some other crime with a greater level of human impact," says Stephanie Pendry, the UK enforcement support officer for Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network. "But the unit means that investigations will be able to be carried forward. It's very forward-thinking of the UK to do this - very few other countries have an equivalent agency."

The unit has already had success: it provided intelligence to Netherlands authorities that led to the arrest of 20 people for the illegal importation of birds into the EU; and to US agencies for the seizure of tiger parts and snow leopard skins. "But previously it was a unit that was very covert in its operations," says Kerr. "Now we're dealing with wildlife crime in the same way as with drugs, firearms or other serious crime. Wildlife crime is a green issue and I think it is of real interest to the public. We have a responsibility to do something about it."

The recent successes of Henery and his fellow wildlife officers have been the product of extensive fieldwork combined with standard police scientific methods . "Much of the work is being out in the field talking to people, relying on tip-offs from the public," says Henery. "But we use the same techniques and technology to investigate wildlife crime as we might a murder."

DNA techniques, which have been used to convict wildlife criminals, are now being developed specifically for different species. CSI methodology is also widely used - although trapping foxes is legal, trappers are obliged to check their traps daily, and Henery recently used the testimony of a fly expert to prove that a consequently convicted man had not done so for four days. The expert could tell from the size of the maggots in the fox's wounds.

Although it may not provoke the same sentimental reaction that cruelty to puppies and kittens does, wildlife crime is nevertheless devastating in its consequences. Inevitably, the animals and birds most highly valued, for reasons of luxury or fashion, are the most rare and in greatest danger of extinction.

Wildlife crime involves the global trade in high-value products used for ornamentation, from tiger skins to turtle shells, through those used in traditional medicines, from rhino horn to deer musk, to curios such as seahorses and butterflies, ornamental and medicinal plants - as well as live animals, with reptiles and primates especially valued. Some 52 species of parrot are near extinction as a direct result of wildlife crime, for instance, while an Indian rhino census last year revealed that, in just five years, the population had plummeted from 544 to 372 through illegal poaching. Many developing nations do not have the resources to police the trade at source. And when a species becomes depleted the criminals simply move on to new markets.

"The loss of a small number of individuals can have a massive impact on an endangered species," says David Cowdrey, director of the WWF's wildlife trade campaign. "It's an issue for native as much as foreign species, too: badger-baiting, poaching, the smuggling of endangered birds, obsessive egg-collecting, even bluebells ripped out of woodlands and shipped abroad. Cases are rare so there's a temptation to trivialise these crimes. But there's a trail of serious, life-threatening crime activity behind those involved in it."

The annual value of the legal international wildlife trade is estimated at £90bn. By its nature, estimating the size of the illegal trade - that in endangered or protected species - is guesswork, but it is believed to run into the billions, in monetary value second only to the drugs trade, with which it is often connected.

Small wonder then that it is a crime which is increasingly attracting the interest of organised criminal groups: animal skins, traditional Asian medicines and specimen-collecting all demand specialist methods. "Getting animals and animal parts from one side of the world to the other undiscovered takes organisation," says Kerr. "There are people out there who know an awful lot about it and we have to find them. That kind of intelligence-gathering can be a long, challenging and resource-intensive process."

Despite its reputation as an animal-loving nation, the UK is a major consumer country for reptiles, amphibians, birds of prey and aviary birds. "The UK is a trading post for illegal wildlife," says the WWF's Cowdrey. "It needs the new unit and it needs the unit to push for tough sentencing."

When the Metropolitan Police seized 138 shahtoosh shawls in 1997, the easily hidden haul was valued at over £353,000. Although some 1,000 Tibetan antelope would have been hunted to make the wool for the shawls, the smuggler was fined only £1,500. But since 2000 a prison sentence has been possible for wildlife crimes and an arrest can be made for buying or selling illegal animals or derivatives.

"Tougher sentences, new legislation and the establishment of the NWCU send out shock waves to wildlife criminals," says Henery, "but changes in the law result in changes in the way the criminals operate. There's money to be made so they don't simply go away. For wildlife officers like myself and those of the NWCU, it's a question of always staying one step ahead."

Anyone wishing to report a suspected wildlife crime can contact the WWF's 'Eyes and Ears' number on 01483 426 111 or call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

The price of cruelty

The trade in CITES specimens (the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is a direct threat to the survival of a number of species, notably tigers, rhino and the Tibetan antelope (or shahtoosh). Since 2003, 1,359 seizures were made of CITES specimens.

Last year alone 517 seizures were made - 7,846 live animals were among the haul. The black market value of these animals and their derivatives is rising with their rarity:

Ivory: £100 to £500 per kg

Cotton-top tamarins: £500+

Tiger skins: £500-£2,500

Rhinoceros iguanas: £1,000 to £3,000

Bear gall bladders: £700 to £4,000

Shahtoosh: £4,000 to £12,000

Radiated tortoise: £5,000 a pair

Rhino horn: £10,000 per kg

Lear's macaws (breeding pair): £50,000