Smugglers caught trading illegally in endangered species will face up to five years in jail under tough plans supported by the Government yesterday. The maximum sentence for dealing in illicit wildlife is only two years. But during a Commons debate on a backbench Bill to strengthen existing legislation, Alun Michael, Rural Affairs minister, indicated that would rise sharply.
The Bill's sponsor, Tory Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid Kent), withdrew his Endangered Species (Illegal Trade) Bill after Mr Michael assured him the Government was likely to act. Mr Michael said it would probably include the measures in the Criminal Justice Bill due to go before Parliament later this year.
Mr Robertson said paltry fines and low sentences were making Britain a centre for illegal trafficking in endangered species, with trading worth more than £5bn a year, the most important criminal activity worldwide after drugs.
Police recently seized tiger cubs, which had been killed when less than two weeks old, stuffed and mounted on a branch, as well as gorilla skulls, leopards and rare birds. The World Wide Fund for Nature reckons at least 20 per cent of the world's species could be extinct in the next 30 years.
"Illegal trading in animal products, or the animals themselves, is a major contributor to this," Mr Robertson said. "I very much regret to say the UK is a major centre for this trade, as both a transit route and indeed as a final destination. There are clear and proven links with organised crime with endangered species being traded along exactly the same smuggling lines as drugs and guns."
British customs seized an average of 570 illegal wildlife items each day, but only 51 cases had been prosecuted in 14 years.
Mr Michael said ministers accepted that increasing the penalties was justified but were consulting on it.
"It would be premature to support the Bill while public consultation is still proceeding," he said. "But we will return to the matter in the later stages of the Criminal Justice Bill when I hope we will be able to put in place exactly those measures you sought today."
Also discovered recently by police have been illegally held sparrow hawks, snowy owls, turtles, tortoises, parrots and a host of primates.