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Threat to rare species

The global racket in the trafficking of rare and endangered animals is bigger than the world's arms smuggling rackets and second only in size to the illegal traffic in drugs. Tom Mangold reports on the impact of the four billion pound a year trade.

There are 71 reptile species on the verge of extinction. The illegal trade in reptiles is playing a ruthless part. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, we are into the greatest extinction of historical times.

The profit scales are similar to those in the drug trade. But the sentences for those caught are far smaller.

Anson Wong
Wong led one of the world's biggest reptile smuggling gangs
Anson Wong from Malaysia ran the biggest global animal dealer and smuggling operation that has ever been broken. He is in a Californian prison awaiting sentencing. The prosecutors are hoping he will get an exemplary sentence to deter the illegal traders.

Young, cultured, and ruthless, Wong had worked his way to the top of the animal underworld. In Malaysia, Wong owned a private zoo. It was a perfect front for illegal dealing in protected wildlife.

He dealt with creatures protected by an international convention called Cites for rare and endangered species threatened with extinction. Trade in these creatures is either forbidden or strictly regulated. Wong simply ignored the law.

He stole almost extinct Komodo dragons from their islands in Indonesia. It is the world's largest lizard, valued at 20,000. He dealt in the critically endangered Chinese alligator worth at least 11,000 on the black market.

Great tortoise robbery

Wong was also involved in the biggest ever theft of precious reptiles. It proved to be his downfall.

Ploughshare Tortoise
The Ploughshare tortoise has a street value of 35,000
The delicate ploughshare tortoise from remote Madagascar is the jewel in the crown of the reptile world. But its beautiful shell has threatened its survival.

The ploughshare has been stolen and hunted to the point of extinction. There are less than a thousand left alive, probably insufficient to sustain continuity of the species.

The attempt to run a breeding programme in Madagascar to save the ploughshare collapsed when 75 of them were stolen. The haul was worth one and half million pounds on the black market.

Wong gained access to about 37 of the stolen ploughshares. He offered two of them to PacRim, an undercover business set up by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

US Federal Agent Ernest Mayer says, "the only way to really address or organise the smuggling, criminal rings that were smuggling the animal in was to set up an undercover business, a sting operation to catch them in the act."

It was known as Operation Chameleon, and Wong was their major target. After a long investigation Wong was lured to a meeting with PacRim and arrested as he stepped off the plane in Mexico.

There are many animal species that are not going to survive

Ernest Mayer
To date Operation Chameleon has caught 26 animal smugglers and traffickers from six countries. All have been successfully prosecuted. But even this huge operation has failed to do much more than set the traffic back for a while.

Losing battle

Ernest Mayer says: "There are many animal species that are not going to survive, they're going to go extinct so I think from that standpoint we're losing."

Although there are international agreements to protect these species, they carry little weight in countries like Cameroon where illicit animal dealing is a fact of life.

Paul Sullivan
Paul Sullivan left Britain to become a trafficker in West Africa
Paul Sullivan has broken laws that protect reptiles from being poached and traded to extinction. He says "The trade has benefits for hundreds of people. I make a living and lots of people make a living from something which is a useless item to a person in a third world country."

Sullivan was sent to prison in California in February 2000. He pleaded guilty to several charges of illegally trafficking endangered reptiles to the United States.

Reptiles in demand

In America, the legal trade in live reptiles has increased by 2000 per cent in a mere nine years. It is this demand for unsuitable pets that helps fuel the illegal trafficking.

And that demand is still growing despite the risks involved in keeping these animals, and the risks to the environment.

Animals that are recovered cannot be returned to the wild. They would probably die, or infect other wildlife with their alien Western germs. Essentially, they are biologically dead.

Stuart Chapman of the WWF will be answering your questions about the issues raised in the programme.

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