'Roo rustlers and turtle thieves hit French zoos

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From snakes to flamingoes to kangaroos to vultures, nothing is safe any more. A surge of rustling in French zoos and safari parks has left owners and keepers asking how long it will be before someone walks off with an elephant.

"Animal traffickers are taking everything these days," said Michel Louis, director of the Amnéville zoo in Moselle in northern Lorraine. "I have the only zoo in France protected by watchmen all night, but that didn't stop them. They stole 12 Chilean pink flamingoes. Only the lions are safe. Elephants are only a matter of time."

Similar incidents have been reported at zoos the length and breadth of France in recent weeks. Penguins were stolen from a zoo at Les Sables d'Olonne in Vendée on the Atlantic coast; parrots and monkeys vanished at Aix-en-Provence in the south and tamarin monkeys, falcons, a vulture and kangaroos disappeared from Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher in the centre of the country.

Police and zoo-keepers blame unscrupulous animal traffickers, operating on behalf of private collectors. Tighter controls on the export of wild animals from their countries of origin have made zoos a tempting target.

Some rare breeds of parrots can be sold on the black market for €20,000 (£14,000) each. Pink flamingoes fetch up to €3,000. Some of the rarer kinds of snake go for up to €10,000 each. Even a tiny Madagascar turtle - which you could slip into your pocket - can command prices of up to €10,000.

According to a rumour circulating in the French zoo community, the plague of rustling this year may be linked to an attempt by an Arab prince to create a private zoo in the grounds of his villa in northern Italy. French police say that there is not one buyer but scores of them, providing custom for rustling gangs based in Germany and Belgium.

Most zoos are designed to keep animals in rather than to keep human intruders out. In the case of the Lorraine zoo, the thieves broke through the outer perimeter at night and virtually demolished the flamingo house to get at the birds.

"What makes me sick is that flamingoes are very nervous birds which cannot stand any stress," said M Louis, the zoo director. "Some of them are sure to have died of heart attacks while being carried away."

To improve security, French zoos are hiring armed guards and installing powerful lights and alarms. The police are also encouraging zoos to implant tiny electronic homing devices under the skin of all valuable animals in their collections.