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Monday, 18 February, 2002, 12:35 GMT
UK 'complacent' over wildlife threats
Tiger skin   David Southern/WWF-UK
Confiscated at Heathrow airport: There is a market for stuffed tiger cubs (David Southern/WWF-UK)
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By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Conservationists say the UK is helping to fuel the destruction of some highly threatened species.

They say elephants, rhinos and tigers are among the species in peril.

They also accuse the UK of threatening the survival of parrots by continuing to import birds caught in the wild.

The threat, they say, comes from the activities both of smugglers and of the legal wildlife trade.

Parrot   Bill Wilson/WWF-UK
African grey: Imports are unsustainable (Bill Wilson/WWF-UK)
WWF has analysed the illegal wildlife imports seized by HM Customs and Excise - a total of over a million items from 1996 to 2000, or more than 570 a day.

The accusation comes from WWF, the global environment network, in a report entitled Traded towards Extinction?

Yet the fines imposed on smugglers averaged nine pence (13 cents) per item.

WWF is concerned because it says many smugglers are not intercepted.

No sanction

It says the UK has some of the world's best-trained customs officers, but too few to stop the wildlife trade.
Top 10 seized products
1)Traditional Chinese medicines
2) Live reptiles
3) Coral
4) Alligator and crocodile products
5) Snake and lizard products
6) Elephant ivory and skin
7) Endangered plants
8) Live birds
9 Queen conch shells
10) Caviar (amounts over 250g)

And once smugglers get through customs they can sell endangered species without fear of arrest.

The WWF wants the maximum sentence for illegally trading wildlife to be increased from two years to five, which would make it an arrestable offence.

Stuart Chapman of WWF said: "Clearly wildlife criminals see the UK as a soft touch, and it's time the government acted to change this.

"Under UK law you can be arrested for poaching a pheasant, but not for selling a poached tiger, elephant or rhino."

The report says customs officers on average seize elephant and tiger items every day. Other confiscated species include seahorses, coral, butterflies and even a live cheetah.

WWF says the UK is also over-exploiting species and destroying habitats through the legal wildlife trade.

'Think before you buy'

It says 88% of parrots imported were caught in the wild, not bred in captivity.

Annual exports from Africa of grey parrots, it says, are running at more than 6% of the total global population of 600,000 birds, a level which is unsustainable.

Tree fern   David Southern/WWF-UK
Tree fern: UK's appetite is voracious (David Southern/WWF-UK)
In 1999 the UK took 91% of all tree ferns imported from Australia.

The WWF is concerned because it says the plants, which take 200 years to grow to maturity, are ripped from old-growth rainforests, wrecking the habitat.

David Cowdrey of WWF told BBC News Online: "On the legal trade, our message to people in the UK is to remember that while it's legal it's still having an impact on the environment.

Subsidised poachers

"We think we're a nation of animal lovers. But when it comes down to it, we just don't ask the right questions.

"We're complacent. We think we've ended the killing of elephants for ivory, but homecoming tourists often buy ivory carvings at foreign airports.

"British people don't want to face up to the fact that they're fuelling extinction by putting money in the poachers' pockets.

"There's even still a market in London for stuffed week-old tiger cubs."

Globally, WWF says, wildlife traders export 25-30,000 primates, from two to five million wild birds, ten million reptile skins and more than 500 m tropical fish annually.

The BBC's Graham Satchell
"1million illegal items per year is just the tip of the iceberg"
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