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.