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
Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future