Police set up wildlife crime squad to hunt down gangs muscling in on lucrative trade

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The Independent Online

Wildlife crime was once the work of groups of bloodthirsty men digging for badgers, or fanatics hoarding birds' eggs for their private collections.

Wildlife crime was once the work of groups of bloodthirsty men digging for badgers, or fanatics hoarding birds' eggs for their private collections. But it has moved from amateur "sport" to a multimillion- pound business committed by drug barons and international gangs of criminals.

There are fortunes to be made from the illegal trade in Tibetan shahtoosh shawls, rhino horn, elephant tusks, or the illicit sale of live exotic birds or orchids.

The profits available from the international trade in rare and endangered species are estimated to be worth £5bn a year – so vast that they are second only to drugs.

With the lure of easy money, low detection rates, short prison sentences and laughably small fines, organised crime is now into the wildlife business in a big way.

The problem has become so serious that the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will announce today that a specialist squad of detectives has been established to focus on wildlife crime.

The National Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit, based in London, will provide Customs and Excise and Britain's police forces with intelligence on gangs and the routes they use to smuggle animals.

The intelligence officers, and the police, will use investigative tactics similar to those deployed against drugs barons, such as undercover operations and bugging suspects.

An estimated 350,000 wild animals and plants and their products are traded around the world every year in a market thought to be worth £20bn.

The international police organisation Interpol estimates that about a quarter of the market is illegal. The exact value of the goods traded in Britain and by British criminals is unknown, but it runs into tens of millions of pounds.

NCIS has identified organised criminals with established smuggling networks, such as drug and people traffickers, as the groups who are most capable of exploiting the demand for wildlife.

Criminals are always looking to diversify. With the long prison sentences for drugs and the high profile of illegal immigrants, a move towards such a low-risk and high-profit commodity as animals and plants is irresistible.

London has become a centre of the illegal international trade, with people travelling from all over the world to buy and sell items such as shahtoosh shawls, made from the ultra-light wool of the highly endangered chiru antelope from Tibet: a single embroidered shawl can be sold for up to £15,000. In one case police seized 138 shawls with a value of £353,000 being illegally offered for sale in a Mayfair shop.

In one recent case the taxidermist Robert Sclare, 52, was jailed for six months after he was convicted of forging documents to allow him to sell rare and threatened species at his shop in Islington, north London. The haul included a tiger, a chimpanzee, leopards, birds of prey, a Chilean flamingo, a black panther, and a tiger cub.

Although rare animals and plants are not supposed to be traded or sold if they have been placed on Appendix 1 of the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – which is meant to protect the world's endangered wildlife – the controls are frequently evaded.

The World Wide Fund for Nature believes weak anti-smuggling laws have made Britain a haven for black- market dealers. Its campaign director for wildlife trade, David Cowdrey, said: "Prosecutions are infrequent and court fines are low. This has to change."

Trafficking is most common in live reptiles, chelonians, parrots and macaws, oriental medicines and products made from reptiles.

The quantity of animals and plants being smuggled into Britain is alarming. A WWF report published in February revealed that Customs officers seize more than 570 wildlife items a day at British ports and airports. On average they seize at least one elephant ivory or skin and tiger product every day.

Smuggling methods are ingenious. A woman bound for the Netherlands from America was stopped at Glasgow airport wearing a snake belt that turned out to be alive. The snake's body temperature had been reduced to sedate it.

In January Raymond Humphrey, 52, an animal dealer, was jailed for six and a half years after an investigation into the discovery of 23 endangered birds of prey packed in suitcases at Heathrow.

Customs officers found the birds in 6in-diameter plastic tubes inside the two cases. All the birds had their feet bound and had gone without food or water for the 14-hour flight from Thailand. Six had perished and another died later. The birds, including eagles, owls and kites, had a black- market value of £35,000.

After Humphrey's arrest, the RSPCA raided his Norfolk home and found 14 other endangered species of birds, mammals and reptiles in captivity, including a golden-cheeked gibbon, of which there are fewer than 1,000 in the world. The birds were being bought for between £30 and £60 in Thailand and sold for several hundred up to several thousands of pounds.

Birds are popular with smugglers, both in and out of Britain. Last month Focus DIY stores and its pet chain Petworld stopped selling exotic birds after an investigation by the charity Animal Aid alleged that more than 75 per cent of the birds on sale in Focus stores were taken from the wild.

But not only exotic birds from abroad are being traded: so are native British species. Dutch and German police have warned that organised gangs of traders are taking trips to Scotland to raid the nests of golden eagles, red kites and peregrine falcons.

A peregrine falcon caught in Scotland, or possibly taken as an egg, might sell for £200. By the time it reaches a Gulf state, where falconry is a rich man's hobby, it could be worth £5,000.

The RSPCA has reported an upsurge in the capture of wild birds in the past year. Trappers use fine "mist" nets covered in glue to catch birds such as linnets, siskins and finches, which are sold in Britain as specially bred song birds for up to £30 each. Some are sold abroad to places such as Malta.

Another booming commodity is the illegal sale in wild animals for food – bushmeat – from central and western Africa. Some species of monkeys, chimpanzees and gorillas are now threatened with extinction.

In May last year, two London shopkeepers who illegally traded in bushmeat were each jailed for four months. The shop in east London had been selling whole lions priced at £5,000, as well as antelopes, porcupines, goats, cane rats and live snails from West Africa and animal parts for traditional medicines.

The case highlighted how a demand among expatriate African communities has created a thriving illegal bushmeat business in London. It also showed the exorbitant prices people are prepared to pay: monkeys were sold for £350.

Part of the reason organised crime gangs have focused on wildlife is that they get away with minor penalties, a study published this year concluded.

Martin Roberts, who led the research team at Wolverhampton University, said: "The big problem is that wildlife crime is viewed as victimless and the law tends to see this as less serious, and so penalties are low. The consequences are that we have evidence of a migration of people moving into types of wildlife crime where they can use the same skills from other offending activities with low risk but potentially the same rewards. It might be reasonable to assume that if you can disrupt criminal activities involving wildlife trafficking, it could have an effect on drug and human trafficking."

Wildlife crime was often motivated by money, a feeling of power and excitement and, in the case of egg collecting, irrational and obsessive behaviour, the report, Wildlife Crime in the UK: Towards a National Wildlife Crime Unit, concluded.

Animals in danger: Booming business the Government wants to stop

*About 20,000 Tibetan chiru antelopes are thought to be killed every year to supply the trade; conservationists estimate only 72,500 are left. In one case in London, police seized 138 shawls with a value of £353,000 being illegally offered for sale in a Mayfair shop.

*The hunting of wild animals for food ­ bushmeat ­ in central and western Africa has become a multimillion-pound business.

* Hyacinth macaws, which can fetch about £20,000, are among the exotic birds most frequently smuggled into Britain. In addition, birds of prey and song birds are caught in the UK and sold abroad. A peregrine falcon can be worth up to £5,000.

* Badger baiting ­ in which the animal is caught and forced to fight with dogs ­ is still popular in Scotland and northern England.

* Ivory, which has been under an international trade ban since 1989, is still being seized in London to prevent dealing.