The beautiful and the exotic: a smuggler's booty more lucrative than the drug trade

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When Customs officers smashed open the two statues at London's Heathrow airport all their suspicions appeared to be confirmed. But the package inside was not the expected high-grade cannabis. Instead they had stumbled across something much more lucrative for smugglers - rhino horn.

The horn highly prized in the Far East sells for about pounds 7,000 a kilo. Cannabis would fetch about pounds 3,000 a kilo. There was more than pounds 25,000 worth hidden in the two Plasticine figures.

That shipment from South Africa, intercepted in London on the way to Taiwan, is just one illustration of the amount of money that can be made from endangered species on the international black market.

Ivory, crocodile skins, pelts and bones of big cats like tigers and leopards, live rare birds and birds eggs, corals and tortoise shells are all much in demand by unscrupulous collectors and traders across the world.

However, the problem is not just a large scale commercial one. A huge amount of banned items seized at ports and airports in the United Kingdom are brought back by ordinary travellers who had bought them as souvenirs abroad.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has been signed by 136 member countries of the United Nations. Under it's regulations more than 800 species of plants and animals are currently banned from international trade, and another 23,000 are strictly controlled.

But the international restrictions do not apply to indigenous domestic markets, and there is nothing to stop tourists from buying a wide range of goods from crocodile leather handbags to stuffed birds and turtle shell ashtrays. However, the goods would be confiscated if detected being brought into Britain, and prosecution may follow. The last available figures, for l995-96, show that Customs seized 12,178 items derived from endangered species, 4,374 live animals, and 2,748 plants.

To highlight the problem Customs and the Natural History Museum have opened an exhibition at the museum in South Kensington, west London. It is due to run from today until August 31. The main aim is to inform travellers going abroad about endangered species, and the inadvisability of buying products made from them.

Customs officer Charles Mackay, head of the CITES enforcement team at Heathrow, said: "We came across a Russian recently with 200 live turtles packed in a couple of cases. One of them had escaped and was making its way around the baggage carousel. But we also have much more sophisticated smuggling attempts.

"Ivory is one of the most common items. We are also coming across products from tigers and leopards which are in demand for traditional medicines by expatriate Chinese communities. A tiny plaster strip with tiger balm can sell for around pounds 7."

Dawn Primarolo, Financial Secretary to the Treasury said: "Travellers need to know souvenirs could be made from endangered species and their purchase could encourage this unlawful trade. This exhibition will increase public awareness".

Customs officers say they would also like to see awareness on environmental issues raised among the judiciary. Most of the prosecution for smuggling endangered species products is under Section 170 of the Customs and Excise Act 0f l979 - carrying a maximum sentence of seven years, and/or an unlimited fine.

But in 1995 a man who was convicted of possessing more than 500 dead endangered specimens and believed to have links with an international syndicate only received a two year sentence.

And, after another successful conviction, the leader of an international gang of rare egg smugglers was sentenced to just eight months, and his associates received between two and three months each.