Picture Post: Brought to book - the wildlife smugglers

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The Independent Online

It's not only the drugs, money or jewels that customs officials have to look out for. Yesterday, some rather exotic stowaways were discovered at an Australian customs exports checkpoint. A batch of 15 leaf-tail geckos had been concealed within hollowed-out books and behind the canvas in some picture frames. Sent by post, the packages were bound for the Czech Republic. The tale does not have a happy ending, however: most of the reptiles had died through lack of air, food and water. "The general method seems to have been to send more than one gecko in each parcel and hope that at least one of them survived the journey," said Richard Janeczko, who managed the investigation.

According to Interpol, the smuggling of endangered animals is a global trade worth about £5bn annually.

Australia, which has hundreds of unique species of reptiles and birds, many of them nearing extinction, is a particularly fertile hunting ground; many of those animals leaving Australia head to Europe. As a major trade hub, Britain is often a stop-off point on the way, but many rare wildlife species are illegally sold here, too. Endangered animals find homes with naive pet-lovers and exotic-animal-fans. Everything from stuffed tiger cubs to gorilla skulls and rare birds have been confiscated in recent years.

"Even in this enlightened age there is a demand for exotic, endangered animals in Britain," says WWF spokesman David Cowdrey, "And that is reflected by the seizures still being made by customs in Britain."

Last year, customs intercepted 163,000 illegal wildlife "items" at UK ports. Those trying to import endangered species face up to seven years in prison. Selling members of endangered species, meanwhile, can land you five years in the clanger – which is still a lot less unpleasant than suffocating to death inside a package.