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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.