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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
Sport
footballArsenal take the Community Shield thanks to a sensational strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arts and Entertainment
Gemma Chan as synth Anita in Humans
film
News
Keeping it friendly: Tom Cruise on ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ensemble cast: Jamie McCartney with ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’
artBritish artist Jamie McCartney explains a work that is designed to put women's minds at rest
News
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
people
Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen