UK 'allowing illicit trade in endangered species'

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A HOST of endangered species faces extinction due to a flourishing illegal trade in wildlife products in Britain's Caribbean territories, according to a report published by the Worldwide Fund for Nature today. Among the illegal items being sold to tourists are live iguanas, conch shells, turtle shells and coral bracelets and necklaces.

A HOST of endangered species faces extinction due to a flourishing illegal trade in wildlife products in Britain's Caribbean territories, according to a report published by the Worldwide Fund for Nature today. Among the illegal items being sold to tourists are live iguanas, conch shells, turtle shells and coral bracelets and necklaces.

Such products are on open sale in souvenir shops in the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands - which are all under British sovereignty - even though Britain signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in 1976.

The WWF's international conservation officer, Stuart Chapman, said: "The British government has turned a blind eye for over 20 years to these overseas territories which are home to many rare and endangered species. Many of these face extinction if Britain fails to honour its treaty obligations.

"What has been so staggering about this investigation is that the UK has been a leading light in Cites for a number of years but the same cannot be said of its enforcement in its overseas territories. The British Caribbean islands are extremely rich in biodiversity with many critically endangered species that are unique to the islands - yet there is virtually zero enforcement or implementation of Cites."

Among the species at risk are the "critically endangered" Great Cayman blue iguana and the Anegada ground iguana, each estimated to number less than 200 in the wild. They are at risk due to demand from collectors of exotic pets.

Black coral and queen conch shells, sold as ornaments and jewellery, are gathered live from the reefs and lagoons that surround the islands. The black coral is now so depleted that it is also being smuggled from the independent Caribbean islands that have clamped down on the illegal trade.

Both hawksbill and green turtle shells were also spotted on sale, as whole polished shells and in the form of earrings and bracelets. Confusing the picture, some appeared to originate from turtle farms on the Cayman Islands. However, there was no way to tell which were farmed, and which were collected from the wild.

All the species featuring in the WWF's Conched Out report are listed under Appendix I or II of Cites, meaning that international trade in them or their products is either forbidden or must be accompanied by a permit indicating that they derive from a sustainable source. However the WWF's investigation found that no such permits were in use.

The WWF also found imported ivory on sale in the four territories. "Heaven knows where the ivory comes from," MrChapman said. "The only thing we can be sure of is that it is not a legal source."

Of the four territories investigated, the Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands have ratified Cites. But nowhere in the British Caribbean does the convention have a practical effect. Although most trade in Cites-listed species is illegal in the territories, regular commercial shipments take place without checks "due to the lack of knowledge, enforcement or implementation of Cites by the authorities", the WWF said.The penalties are "insignificant".

The WWF said the Government should urgently implement an action plan to bring the overseas territories into compliance with Cites.

If such action is not taken by the next meeting of Cites, in April, it says that it will be "guilty of hypocrisy for failing to protect its own endangered species whilst passing judgement on other countries' conservation efforts".

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said yesterday it "welcomed" the WWF report and "the attention it has brought to this important issue".

Caribbean creatures under threat from the booming black market in exotic wildlife

Black coral

Black coral is the most highly sought after of all coral species. All the overseas territories ban its collection but there are few effective controls. Commercial supplies are mined off the Dominican Republic and Belize and sell for $1,000 per kg once worked into jewellery and art pieces.

Green turtle

The turtle and its eggs have always been exploited for food and local commercial exploitation is having an increasing effect on populations. As with the hawksbill, juveniles are stuffed for the tourist trade, while adults are hunted for their valuable hides and oil.

Queen conch

The queen or pink conch breeds in shallow waters in summer, releasing masses of up to 750,000 eggs. Stocks are severely depleted across populated areas of the Caribbean, and even remoter areas are now being exploited by scuba divers.

Anegada iguana

Fewer than 200 survive in the wild, all on the small island of Anegada. Areas of the island that once supported thousands of the iguanas now contain few or none, due to competitive grazing from livestock, predation by dogs and cats, and now the attention of smugglers.

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