Matthew Brace investigates the lucrative traffic in stolen animals
A worrying escalation in wildlife crime, linked to the vast international trafficking of endangered species, has created a new squad of policemen - the wildlife men.

Once animal crime was seen as soft policing, carried out by officers with photos of cuddly tigers and brightly coloured parrots adorning their desks.

Now the growing rate of animal and bird crime means that almost every one of the 43 constabularies in England and Wales has a wildlife squad. Each squad usually consists of one or two officers, working closely with RSPCA inspectors.

Creation of the squads embodies the new get-tough approach to this area of crime, which includes stiffer jail terms for those convicted of stealing, injuring and killing animals for lucrative gains. Other offences against animals start off as pranks: last week an 18-year-old student was sent to a young offender's institution for 90 days for cooking a hedgehog in a microwave oven during a drunken college prank.

According to John Hayward, a former detective and wildlife liaison officer and now the National Theft Co-ordinator for the Federation of Zoos, badgers are one of the main targets of criminals. As many as 10,000 badgers are killed each year by baiters staging clandestine pit fights under the cover of darkness between badger and dog and running an alfresco betting shop for punters.

Egg and bird thefts are running high as the demand for rare species increases. The rarer the species the higher the price: a golden eagle can fetch pounds 10,000. At the other end of the scale, people trap garden finches to sell to pet shops for loose change.

Many stolen animals and birds are smuggled out of the country to unscrupulous overseas collectors, fuelling the international trafficking in endangered species which is the second most lucrative illegal trade in the world after narcotics. Its turnover is greater than those of firearms and counterfeit money.

PC Paul Beecroft, wildlife officer for the Reading area of the Thames Valley force, has seen the trade in stolen wildlife in Britain soar. The number of birds of prey stolen each year has more than doubled in the past 10 years. The previous Conservative government did little to help these figures when, in May 1994, it took several birds off the list of endangered species that required owners to register and ring them.

"There was a 200 per cent increase in thefts that year alone," says PC Beecroft. "I don't think there is another crime in this country that has risen so quickly." Not all collectors are crooks, he adds, but most are so secretive it is hard to know if their collection methods are legitimate.

He works closely with Mick Brewer, deputy chief constable for the Warwickshire force, who is also the wildlife advisor to the Association of Chief Police Officers and joint chairman of the Government-led task force Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW).

Through PAW, the fight against wildlife crime has stepped up a gear. In the past year, police have been employing DNA techniques to prove or disprove relationships between young birds advertised for sale as having been born and bred in captivity, and their supposed parents.

At present the fines for wildlife criminals are stiff. A farmer in PC Beecroft's area was fined pounds 14,500 for several offences including poisoning red kites.

DCC Mick Brewer said the total number of wildlife crimes is impossible to gauge because so few are recorded. The statistical criteria laid down by the Home Office are so complicated that they fail to qualify.