Illicit wildlife traders target shipping routes: Nicholas Schoon reports on efforts by customs officers to protect endangered species of animals and birds by intercepting attempts at smuggling

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SMUGGLERS OF endangered wildlife are turning from aircraft to ships in an attempt to avoid tighter restraints on the illegal but lucrative trade.

Customs officers have seized hundreds of birds and animals in the past 18 months on vessels docking at UK ports. Most have crews from eastern Europe who have sailed from Africa, South America and the Caribbean with parrots, tortoises and monkeys.

At the beginning of this week five African grey parrots were seized on a Turkish bulk carrier unloading raw sugar at the Tate & Lyle refinery in east London.

Yesterday, 26 spur-thighed tortoises taken from a Polish tanker and freighter were flown back to Morocco, where they will be released into a forest nature reserve. This tortoise species - examples of which can fetch over pounds 100 - has been so heavily depleted by the pet trade that it is banned from import into the EC.

The smuggled wildlife usually comes to light when customs officers inspect crew cabins, or during the occasional, far more thorough drug searches.

Most endangered and threatened species pass in and out of British ports undetected. Chris Miller, a Customs and Excise executive officer, said: 'We search only a small percentage of ships, and most of the wildlife we find is only picked up as a result of our efforts against drugs.'

Many airlines have banned the carriage of wild birds following international campaigns against the trade by groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Airport- based customs officers and airline employees now pay more heed to the regulations laid down by Cites - the international trade treaty for endangered species - and the need for correct paperwork.

Tom De Meulenaer, of the wildlife trade monitoring organisation Traffic, believes smuggling rings have therefore turned to ships. He and Mr Miller believe, however, that a large part of the trade is opportunistic. Sailors buy the animals in wildlife markets, hoping to profit by selling them in the West.

'A hundred dollars or pounds is a fortune to these people and it's a lot safer than smuggling drugs,' said Mr Miller, one of only four UK customs officers who cover endangered species as part of their duties. The penalties for breaching Cites laws are far less severe, and in any case no crew member has been prosecuted in Britain for wildlife smuggling.

When birds or animals are found in a sailor's cabin he usually says they are for friends or family, that he has no idea what Cites is, or that a permit is required. 'If we prosecuted we would have to demonstrate that the sailor knew what he was doing was illegal,' Mr Miller said.

When the wildlife is well concealed en masse, then clearly whoever hid it knew he was breaking the law. Two orange-winged Amazon parrots were found dead in the engine room of a Russian merchant ship at Southampton in May, victims of their cramped confinement in hot, noisy, and dark conditions. But in such cases no one admits responsibility.

The most endangered species seized in a British port was a Cuban Amazon, found at Southampton earlier this month. After ending its stay in quarantine it is hoped that it will mate with a Cuban Amazon at a zoo in Cornwall.

The green, white, pink and blue parrot is listed on Cites' appendix 1 (which means that trade is completely banned) because only about 10,000 remain in the wild. They are found on a few Caribbean islands, including Cuba where the ship had sailed from. In Britain they fetch about pounds 1,700.

The rest of the birds and animals found by customs were almost all species on Cites' appendix 2. They are regarded as threatened with extinction rather than endangered, and can be moved only with a permit issued by the exporting government. In many cases, the countries where the species had been taken on board had banned their export, despite the appendix 2 listing.

Customs believes much wildlife found in UK ports is bound for continental Europe, although some of the tortoises could be destined for pet shops here.

The public has not yet got the message that the pet trade is putting species at risk. Last year, customs officers at Heathrow found the editor of Harpers and Queen, Vicki Woods, carrying in her handbag a tortoise which she had bought for her children on holiday in Morocco. She was warned, but not prosecuted.

The biggest ship trade detected in Europe involved Yugoslavian banana boats sailing to Antwerp from Colombia. In one six-month period, 212 parrots, including several on appendix 1, and an ocelot were seized.

The birds were destined for a Belgian dealer, while a sailor hoped to make a quick profit by selling the ocelot in a bar.

(Photograph and map omitted)