Animals at risk as wildlife crime unit faces the axe over £136,000 funding

Britain's National Wildlife Crime Unit which leads the fight against the burgeoning illegal wildlife trade may be facing the axe.

Concern is growing about the future of the widely praised unit, as the Home Office is refusing to agree its funding which runs out on 31 March.

The NWCU recently ran major operations concerning badger-baiting, the smuggling of reptiles and amphibians, and the persecution of raptors; no fewer than 633 birds of prey, from golden eagles to buzzards, were illegally poisoned between 2002 and 2011.

It is also involved in the British end of the illegal trade in rhino horn, which now has a black market value in Asia as high as gold. In the past two years there have been eight thefts and one attempted theft of rhino horns from British museums.

There are fears the unit may fall foul of the massive 20 per cent cuts in police budgets which are being implemented by the Home Secretary, Theresa May. More than 100 MPs have signed an early day motion calling on the Government to secure the future of the unit – whose work was recently warmly complemented by the all-party House of Commons Environment Audit Committee.

The concern is heightened by the fact that wildlife crime of all types is rapidly growing across the world, with elephant and rhino poaching both hitting new highs in 2012. Organised crime is increasingly involved.

However, the relatively minuscule amount of funding for the 10-man unit – £136,000 annually from the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – has not yet been signed off.

Defra has agreed its own share of the funding, but the Home Office has not, and Defra ministers have held direct talks with Ms May about it.

The NWCU is a strategic police unit, based in Livingston in Scotland, which collates intelligence and enforcement activity about wildlife crime across all British police forces.

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