The slithering prizes: Python thefts lift lid on trade in exotic pets

John Harrison walked into his son's shop earlier this month to find thieves had broken in and stolen some of his most prized merchandise – 63 royal pythons and three rare Kimberly rock monitor lizards.

Lost World Reptiles in Teynham, Kent, supplies cold-blooded-animal enthusiasts with everything they could ever need. The business was doing well despite the recession, but on 3 January the collection of animals were spirited out of the back door in the middle of the night and have not been seen since.

"They must have been stolen to order," mused Mr Harrison, who helped his son Karl open the shop two years ago. "They went straight for the high value animals. If they'd taken a couple of bearded dragons or a tortoise I'd know it was an opportunistic crime. But this was a professional job".

In total, more than £45,000 worth of animals were taken from the Harrisons' shop and police in Kent have appealed for help in finding them. "It's highly likely that whoever stole the snakes and lizards has experience in handling reptiles and had previously been into the shop," said Detective Inspector Emma Banks.

The theft of exotic animals is more common than many people think, forming the backbone of a surprisingly lucrative black market with links across Europe. For those who know the trade, certain animals fetch high prices and are particularly worth stealing if a buyer is already lined up. "There are gangs out there that specifically deal in stolen animals," said one senior detective who has investigated numerous animal theft cases. "Some parrot species go for tens of thousands of pounds. These people are not just petty thieves; they are professionals with cross-border links."

In November, two men from Yorkshire who specialised in rare parrots were jailed for a total of 73 months after being convicted of stealing more than £130,000 worth of birds. Trevor Pitts, 36, and James Collins, 34, criss-crossed the country looking for homes with rare and exotic species. In 2008 alone, they managed to steal 10 prized Amazon parrots worth £100,000 before they were arrested. The parrots and their buyers, however, have never been found.

John Hayward, a former officer with Thames Valley Police, runs the National Theft Register, the only database of stolen animals in Britain.

"Last year, we dealt with 15 cases of parrots being stolen," he said. "We had around a further dozen reports of other species stolen. Whenever we have an endangered animal stolen we try to work out whether it was a one-off, a casual crime or part of series of similar thefts that can be linked."

Not all of the thefts have an unhappy ending. Two years ago, a pair of squirrel monkeys were stolen from Cotswold Wildlife Park. Thieves broke in and used bolt cutters to gain access to their enclosure before stealing two from a family of six. Park officials went to their local press to publicise the theft, emphasising how both the monkeys were elderly and needed the companionship of their family. "It worked," says Jamie Craig, the park's curator. "A few days later I got a call from an anonymous, but rather contrite caller claiming he had bought the monkeys in a pub. Two years on they're both doing fine".

High Value Animals

Peregrine falcon

Worth thousands of pounds each. Eggs are often smuggled to the Middle East where falconry is a national sport.

Scarlet macaw

Worth around £1,600 each. Native to the rainforests of Central and South America, it grows to 3ft in height and has brilliant red, yellow and blue plumage. Endangered because of poaching, it is also unusual as it is monogamous.

African grey parrot

Worth up to £800 each. Famed for its intelligence and talkative nature, it grows to about a foot long and needs attention and affection to stop it becoming bored.

Suggested Topics
Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried