Stuck at Heathrow: the live animal cargo smuggled into Britain

Among the lizards and lemurs, Nigel Morris hears a plea to crack down on animal trafficking at the airport’s ‘Noah’s Ark’

Deputy Political Editor

Criminals caught smuggling rare and exotic animals should face swingeing jail sentences in an attempt to stamp out an illicit trade that threatens the survival of endangered species, a minister said.

Norman Baker was speaking after viewing a staggering array of live creatures intercepted at British airports, including giant lizards, crocodiles, tortoises, snakes, a chameleon and a parrot. Among the most fearsome-looking was a 1m-long white-throated monitor lizard from Tanzania, one of a batch of 10 found crammed into small bags.

The animal reception centre at Heathrow Airport – described by one Border Force official as “a Noah’s ark” – has in recent months housed monkeys, lemurs, king vultures and even a cheetah.

Twelve San Salvador rock iguanas – a breed so rare that only a few hundred are thought to exist – have just been sent back to their native Bahamas.

They were smuggled into the country, hidden in socks, by two Romanian women who were en route to Germany. The creatures are so rare they could each be worth £20,000 to collectors. The women were each jailed for a year – and Mr Baker called for even tougher treatment for the masterminds behind the multi-billion pound trade.

The maximum prison sentence for animal smuggling is seven years. The longest term handed down has been the six and a half years given to an animal dealer caught with 23 endangered birds of prey packed in suitcases.

Mr Baker, the crime prevention minister, told The Independent he wanted to see more animal smugglers serving long spells behind bars.

“These species don’t just belong to this generation. They have to exist forever – before us and after us,” he said. “Anyone who endangers that should be subject to severe penalties, including imprisonment.”

Grant Miller, the senior officer on the eight-strong Border Force endangered species team, said: “We need to ensure the full force of the law is brought against them.”

In the first three months of 2014 alone, 523 live animals and birds have been confiscated under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species. Crime prevention minister Norman Baker with a chameleon at the centre Crime prevention minister Norman Baker with a chameleon at the centre

That is in addition to thousands of parts from threatened animals, birds and plants, which are often intended for oriental medicine, herbal supplements or religious icons.

Recent seizures include a consignment of shaved rhino horn, which is undergoing DNA testing to determine its origin, carved ivory and scales from pangolins (giant anteaters) which are regarded in the Far East as cures for serious illness. There is also a demand for exotic corals and a Manchester man was sentenced to six months in jail last year after he was caught with 750kg of rare and endangered coral from Vietnam.

An alarming new trend has been the illegal trade in timber from rare trees prized in China for furniture and carvings. A 2,000kg consignment of red sandalwood, nicknamed “red gold” because of its high value, was seized at Heathrow on a roundabout journey from India to China.

The seizure prompted Interpol to issue its first ever alert this month to police forces to gather information about the trafficking of at-risk timber.

A separate batch of endangered Spanish cedar – a highly scented timber known as “cigar box wood” – has also been intercepted recently by border officials.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'