The pet detectives

Dawn raids and undercover operations are all in a day's work for the police. But these officers aren't chasing robbers, they're saving animals. By Rob Sharp

There are two cops, a scientist, a cameraman, a journalist and a photographer. They rush into a shopping centre in an eastern suburb of Glasgow, the kind of place where cars on bricks sit at the roadside. It is the perfect lair for criminal masterminds, slow-moving merchandise, reptilian contraband skulking beneath the radar.

One of the cops enters the shop. He pulls himself up to his full height and moves towards the counter, ignoring the customers stopping to gawp. The scientist shuffles in alongside him, quiet and intense, pulling his brow tight and flashing his identification. The shopkeeper's forehead glistens with sweat.

The thin man cocks his head at a row of tanks, lit by fluorescent lights. "We're here about the tortoises," he says. The shopkeeper nods. "Of course," the shopkeeper says, already moving his hands beneath the desk. Everyone in the room freezes. If a fight breaks out, the floor could be blanketed in shells.

Raids such as this, which thankfully ended without trouble, have been happening across the country since September. They are part of a co-ordinated global campaign, Operation Ramp, to clamp down on the illegal animal trade, and in Glasgow one priority is tortoise licences. The National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU), a nationwide police force focusing on animal crime, has busted several pet shops for not updating their paperwork. And around the world, there have been dozens of arrests and seizures, worth €25m.

"Tackling wildlife crime is a top priority for the Government and we are committed to doing all we can to end it," says wildlife minister Richard Benyon. "I have seen for myself the expertise and dedication of those who police wildlife crime."

In Glasgow the day's operation begins at 11am on a rainy November Friday. Four pet shops across the city have been selected for inspection after officers studied intelligence suggesting they might deal in endangered specimens. The raiding party includes Andrew Kitchener, a curator of vertebrates at the National Museum of Scotland, Charles Everitt, an officer with the NWCU, and two members of the local police force (as well as a television crew filming a pilot about wildlife crime).

Each raid proceeds in the same way. One of the group enters each shop anonymously and then leaves to tell the others which animals were on sale. The entire group then enters and Kitchener asks the owner to produce their documentation. One targeted tortoise is the commonly traded Hermann. "It is protected by an international convention which means that it has to be sold with the appropriate licence to prove that it hasn't been stolen from the wild," explains the World Wide Fund for Nature's senior species policy officer, Heather Sohl. "The Hermann's numbers are declining across Europe." Because it is so rare, the Hermann has been listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which gives the animal legal protection across Europe. Each Hermann needs to be sold with an Article 10 certificate, obtained from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The department also keeps a database about who owns which tortoise. Updating this database costs a fee; many pet shops avoid paying it.

The first shop raided is one such offender. Although the staff are very co-operative, the police team uncovers a large numbers of Hermanns lacking documentation. "The owners couldn't tell us which Article 10 was related to which tortoise," Charles Everitt says afterwards. "So we decided to seize all of the paperwork, which was filled out with the name of the tortoise supplier and not the name of the pet shop hoping to sell them. That made them invalid. We asked them to reapply."

Before such seizures are made, it is Kitchener's job is to identify the tortoise. The expert removes a Hermann from a tank with a gloved hand, and points out its distinctly coloured yellow-orange domed shell. Like other tortoises, it has no teeth, but has a distinctive horny spike at the tip of its tale.

The Hermann has always been under threat. It was eaten across Europe during food rationing during the Second World War. These days, urban development has impacted its Mediterranean and South-east Asian habitats, the result of an increase in tourism. Wildfires that strike the Mediterranean region affect the tortoise and its habitat (a population in the French Pyrenees was entirely eradicated by a wildfire in 1986). In addition, despite laws that protect it, the species is still collected from the wild for the pet trade. And in these cash-strapped times, more of them are going to be stolen.

"Because of all the budget cuts, people are going to commit more acquisitive crime," Everitt continues. "Trading in endangered species is somewhere where organised crime can thrive. By importing animals from abroad you can illegally channel and sell them wherever the market demand is."

Operation Ramp involved 46 British police forces and also focused on the illegal trade in turtles, crocodiles, lizards, frogs and snakes. More than 60 inspections were completed at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports, and hundreds of visits were made to reptile traders, breeders, shows, importers and exporters across Britain. "It is often forgotten that law enforcement officers in the developing world frequently lose their lives in the protection of rare plant and animal species," says Brian Stuart, the chair of the Interpol Environmental Crime Programme and a detective inspector with the UK's NWCU. "Their sacrifice serves to remind us of the considerable financial gain to criminals who are involved in wildlife crime, and reinforces our commitment to preventing it wherever possible." Scotland, particularly, is known to be a hot spot for animal-related villainy. Here, wildlife crime has almost trebled from 140 a year in 1999 to 384 last year. Statistics published earlier this year showed that between January and July, 16 birds of prey were poisoned on Scottish estates.

British pet shop owners are particularly lax with regard to Hermanns. Of 4,000 species of tortoise inspected across Britain during Operation Ramp, 1,382 were Hermanns. Around 60 per cent of these lacked the proper documentation. Hermanns are popular with pet shops because they are relatively easy to breed in captivity and produce a large number of eggs per brood. Other tortoises commonly traded include the spur-thighed, pancake, marginated and radiated tortoises. "There was someone convicted two weeks ago last month in Carlisle who traded 70 Hermanns without having licences," says Nevin Hunter, head of compliance at arms-length government body Animal Health. "A lot of people in the trade say these offences aren't important. But the judge at this trial said that the trade of such species should not be taken lightly. This is a huge issue for us. Clamping down on misdemeanours also reassures those who do comply with the rules. It's about having sustainable wildlife resources."

Many wildlife crime officers are motivated by a growing awareness of abuse against the natural world that they cherish. In 1990, after training as an accountant, Charles Everitt juggled life as a police officer with an interest in amateur wildlife photography. Several years ago, the opportunity arose for him to become a wildlife crime officer in Edinburgh and he was seconded full time to the NWCU. "I had so much fun photographing birds of prey that this was a chance put a little back into trying to protect that wildlife," he explains.

Kitchener, who volunteers for raiding missions alongside his normal job, feels the same way. "I am obviously very interested in conservation and I feel it's important I can use the skills I employ in my main job to help ensure that species aren't being illegally traded. It's very nice to be able to use that knowledge in a different way," he says.

In Glasgow the policemen and scientist shake hands with the shopkeeper before bidding him farewell. "Let us know if you catch anything," the pet shop owner jokes. With a wave they depart, into their vehicles, a crack squad of law men at the forefront of annihilating animal crime. Until the next time their slumber is disturbed, tortoises everywhere can sleep safely in their shells.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own