Noses for trouble: The team trying to counter the trade in animal parts

At Heathrow, contraband from duck tongues to heroin is being sniffed out

Share

At the Heathrow base of the crack detection team that combs through incoming luggage and freight hunting illegal imports, unit manager Roma Garrett maintains a remarkable leaderboard of her team’s most notable seizures. In December one operative found £17,500 in cash, while another alighted on 19kg of heroin; back in July, a triumphant entry recorded the discovery of a major stash of unlicenced yoghurt balls.

One team member in particular has displayed a real aptitude for catching those who perpetuate the illegal wildlife trade, a criminal industry that devastates vulnerable communities and habitats and is worth billions every year. Among his seizures are 35kg of emu oil, 1.5 tonnes of buffalo meat, and, in one memorable operation, matching snakeskin coat, shoes and handbags. Impressed by these results, I ask Sam O’Connor, his immediate superior, what sort of incentive scheme she uses. “Well,” she says brightly, “whenever he finds something he gets a biscuit.”

The operative in question is Tyke, a blond eight-year-old Labrador with a cheerful disposition and an extremely important job. He and rest of Heathrow’s canine detection team are charged with identifying, by nose, all manner of contraband coming into the country. Tyke’s specialism is POAO – Products of Animal Origin, the smuggling of which has drawn particular attention in advance of this week’s London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, which begins on Thursday and is focused on the trade in elephant, rhino and tiger products.

Heathrow is a particular hotspot because of its status as a hub airport, which means it is used by traders looking to avoid the obvious routes – like the one from southern Africa, the home of the white Rhino, to China, where the animal’s horn is believed to have medicinal qualities.

Seizures are regularly made, significant and bizarre alike: only last week, two women were arrested after they arrived from the Bahamas carrying 13 endangered iguanas hidden in socks.

Tyke and his colleagues mostly operate behind the scenes at Heathrow, running their sensitive noses over the freight and passenger sides of the transport hub alike. Often, while you’re waiting for your bag in the luggage hall, there’s an eager Labrador or spaniel pacing the carousel on the other side of the wall. The dogs also work the customs channels.

One day last week, though, Tyke came out into full view to demonstrate his skills. After O’Connor gave him the word, he leapt on to the carousel and trotted conscientiously along it, giving every passing bag a quick sniff. How can his handler tell when he’s found something? “He’ll get excited,”  O’Connor says, “and his tail will tend” – she whirls her index finger like a rotor blade – “to do this.”

There’s nothing dodgy on the flight from Madrid. But when Garrett adds a training bag to the mix, Tyke quickly picks it out: he butts his nose against it repeatedly, and, sure enough, swirls his tail so vigorously that he looks as if he might take off. The contents, for the record, are the previous day’s haul of sausages and duck tongue. But all Tyke sees of it is another biscuit.

Meanwhile, half an hour away at Kew Gardens, Tyke’s human counterparts are undergoing training in picking out illegal products from the bewildering range of plant and animal material that passes through Britain’s ports and airports every day. Kew plays a vital role in the process of picking out contraband, performing sophisticated tests to confirm or disprove customs officials’ suspicions. With the illegal ivory trade doubling since 2007 and a 5,000 per cent increase in rhino poaching since the same year, it is work that has risen up the political agenda.

“This is an international trade second only to drugs or armaments,” says Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat minister for crime prevention, as he watches police and customs officers peering at stuffed owls, crocodile skins, ginseng, and a bodybuilding supplement that is illegally produced from orchids. With 35,000 species covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), they have their work cut out.

“The world is moving in the right direction in terms of governments,” Baker says. “But the ability of people to exploit animals and plants is moving in the wrong direction, because the capacity of people to have semi-automatic machine guns or whatever is much greater than it was. We’re in a race against time.”

To sharpen their skills, a few traps lie in wait for the officers. Elephant dung is included in the mix of products they are looking at, even though it’s perfectly legal to import it (should you so wish) – because, says trainer Guy Clarke, “sometimes people see the word ‘elephant’ and just assume it’s against the law”.

On the other hand, another specimen with accompanying paperwork that identifies it as mammoth tusk, and hence not protected, is in fact that of an elephant. You can tell the difference, says Clarke, if you look closely at the criss-cross pattern on the ivory.

Such a vast range of scientific and legal knowledge is required that it seems a wonder that officials are able to keep on top of it all. They are not helped in their endeavours by trends in popular culture that can give them even more to do. “When you had those chameleons talking to each other in that Budweiser ad, suddenly we had a huge surge in chameleon imports,” Clarke says wearily. “And then there were those Harry Potter owls. It doesn’t make it any easier.”

The Independent is urging governments to stamp out wildlife crime this 2014. Sign our petition here.

 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
Jeremy Corbyn addresses over a thousand supporters at Middlesbrough Town Hall on August 18, 2015  

Thank God we have the right-wing press to tell us what a disaster Jeremy Corbyn as PM would be

Mark Steel
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future