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Thursday, March 26, 1998 Published at 17:29 GMT

image: [ BBC Correspondent: Orla Guerin ]Orla Guerin

In Italy, animal welfare organisations are increasingly concerned about an illegal trade in rare species, including lions, tigers and birds of prey, organised by the Mafia. The lucrative trade is centred around the southern city of Naples and run largely by the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra.

Guns and drugs are the usual currency of the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra. But these days criminal gangs in the Southern port city have a new interest: exotic breeds of animals.

Police in Naples thought they had seen it all, that is until they encountered Simba. The three-year-old lion named after a character in an animated Walt Disney film, was discovered in the gardens of a luxury villa, which was home to a Camorra boss.

Simba was not alone. He was surrounded by rare parrots, monkeys, snakes and some pitbull terriers.

Another Camorra chief, now jailed, kept a python. These rare species are not just the latest status symbols for Camorra bosses.

Buying and selling them is big business. The scale of the problem is just coming to light.

The World Wild Life Fund, WWF, estimates that there are two hundred big cats - lions, tigers and leopards - in the possession of the Camorra and other criminal groups in and around Naples.

The Italian animal protection league believes the trade in exotic animals is worth several million pounds.

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