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SOS Rhino : In the News : Current Rhino News : UK revealed as a key location in wildlife smuggling

UK revealed as a key location in wildlife smuggling

  Paul Brown, environment correspondent
Monday December 9, 2002
The Guardian

Smuggling protected species, dead and alive, into Britain is big business, with thousands of specimens confiscated annually despite sophisticated tricks and sometimes surprising routes used to gain entry.

The first ever list of the top 10 illegal wildlife trade channels into the UK has been revealed in a report looking at global wildlife trafficking routes, released today.

The top three most used by smugglers are Heathrow, Manchester, and Gatwick airports, but Waterloo international station also appears on the list.

Shipments seized may contain many thousands of individual wildlife specimens and products. In one illegal shipment there were 21,600 tree ferns.

Examples of seizures made in the UK's main ports of entry by customs and excise include rhino horns concealed in statues, stained ivory hidden in wood shipments, live hatchlings of rare bird species mixed with shipments of domestic chicken hatchlings, and even suitcases filled with rare birds stuffed into tubes.

One consignment contained 59 live pythons and more than two dozen other assorted snakes.

"Smugglers go to great lengths to disguise their activities," said David Cowdrey, WWF wildlife trade campaign director. "Most commonly, permit papers are doctored in an attempt to cover their tracks. However, there are cases where a live snake has been worn like a belt, and egg collectors have worn specially made body vests."

There is evidence that criminal gangs, including the Russian mafia and drugs cartels, are increasingly involved in this global trade.

They use their existing smuggling routes for small arms, drugs, and humans to traffic profitable illegal wildlife commodities, said the report, Switching Channels, compiled by WWF and Traffic, a group specialising in detecting wildlife crime.

Although parrots, turtles, crocodiles, snakes and many other creatures are still alive when smuggled, many have already been long dead. Boots and handbags made of skins, jewellery, ornaments, and even a piano with ivory keys, are among illegal items seized.

The trade in wildlife specimens is controlled by Cites (the convention on international trade in endangered species), which Britain supports.

Maps in the report show the tortuous routes used by smugglers to get illegal wildlife specimens and products into the UK. One, for smuggling birds from Guyana, including the rare Lear's macaw, involved the birds being taken by boat to Grenada, via Suriname, and then moved to Barbados, flown to Cuba, then to Moscow and then Hungary, from where the birds were transported overland into Europe.

Stuart Chapman, WWF head of species, said: "The potential links between the illegal wildlife trade and the drugs, arms and human trade are clear. Although you can be stopped by customs on crossing our borders, once in the UK you can't be arrested for selling endangered wildlife.

"The police need the powers to apprehend and deter wildlife trade criminals."

Some dealers, such as taxidermy specialist Nicolaas Peters, formed global networks of contacts that used a range of routes to the UK. Though based in Wales, he moved specimens back and forth through facilities in Belgium and the Netherlands.

After raiding his premises in Wales, customs discovered hundreds of specimens, including dozens of protected species from every continent. Further raids in Belgium discovered a larger stockpile of specimens and revealed his involvement in organising the killing and smuggling of wildlife.

The report also points to countries heavily involved in the illegal trade, such as the United Arab Emirates. There is a bustling free trade zone in Dubai and Sharjah, and the Blue Souk is a notorious market where endangered species are openly on sale.

In November 2001, the United Nations Cites secretariat stated it had "discovered that much of the caviar worth £17m that left the UAE during the first 10 months of this year appeared to be of unlawful origin".

There is evidence that the UAE may be used as a centre for money laundering and may be becoming a transhipment centre for heroin.

It is known that illegal wildlife routed through the UAE has ended up in the UK.



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