Smugglers in wildlife 'are wiping out species'

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The Independent Online

More than a million imported items of endangered wildlife have been seized in Britain in the past five years, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reveals today in the first detailed analysis of the confiscated goods.

The study shows that even the most commonly recognised endangered species are being smuggled into this country. In a typical week, British customs officers seize items of elephant ivory or skin, and tiger products – mainly used in traditional Chinese medicine – every other day.

Also among the 570 items seized each day between 1996 and 2001 are rare orchids, cacti, shells, corals and leopard and rhino products, as well as 1,000 frogs, 1,000 birds and even a live cheetah. But over the same period, the fines levied equated to a mere 9p for each item seized.

Wildlife crime is estimated by Interpol to be worth more than £5bn a year and, after drugs, is thought to be the most lucrative illegal trade in the world.

The report, Traded Towards Extinction, says the trade is helping to destroy habitats and wipe out some of the world's most endangered species – but not enough customs officers are available to stop it.

Once the smugglers get past customs, it is not even an arrestable offence to sell some of the world's most endangered species under current legislation, the report adds.

A person can be arrested for poaching a pheasant but not for selling a poached tiger, elephant or rhino. "The findings show that wildlife crime pays in the UK," said Stuart Chapman, head of the WWF species programme. "We believe the seizures we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg. Clearly wildlife criminals see the UK as a soft touch and it's time the Government acted to change this."

On average, the report says, only one prosecution is undertaken for every 130,000 items seized; fines are low and the maximum jail term has never been imposed. The WWF is calling for the maximum penalty for illegally trading in wildlife items to be increased from two to five years, and for courts to impose deterrent sentences.

The report says: "Consignments often contained animal and plant extracts such as ginseng, reptile-skin watch straps, tiger-bone plasters and ivory ornaments. Living plants were shipped in the hundreds, including 725 orchids and 200 palms in single shipments.

"Other shipments contained an extraordinary range of live animals, including 200 scorpions, 386 poison arrow frogs, 34 rattlesnakes, five fennec foxes, a cheetah and a variety of monkeys. Many animals die en route: while seven Egyptian tortoises were seized alive, another seven were found dead. These tortoises are on the brink of extinction in eastern Libya and Israel's Negev desert, with no tortoises at all being found alive in Egypt in 1994."

The report also analyses the enormous legal trade in wildlife and shows that Britain plays a big role in Europe's annual consumption of more than 20 million live plants and animals. A remarkable 96 per cent of these, it says, are taken from the wild. In the UK, 88 per cent of parrot imports were wild-caught, dispelling the myth that most birds on sale here are captive-bred. Corruption is involved in the trade of the African grey parrot in particular, a common pet, the report says, with many African countries exceeding their export quotas. More than 6 per cent of the estimated wild population of 600,000 birds are traded annually – which cannot be sustained – and this is only the legal trade.

Australian tree ferns are another species suffering from over-exploitation in trade, the report alleges. They are a trendy garden accessory with more than 140,000 legally imported between 1996 and 2000 to satisfy consumer demand: Britain took 91 per cent of all imports into Europe.

However, on average 12 illegally imported plants are seized every day. The report says: "These prehistoric plants grow slowly, taking up to 200 years to reach their height of six metres. They are ripped from old-growth rainforests, wrecking wildlife habitats in Australian states such as Victoria and Tasmania."