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 Wednesday, 16 February, 2000, 16:02 GMT
UK targets wildlife smugglers
big cat head
One of the grisly items seized by customs officers
Poachers threatening the future of endangered species are facing a tough new crackdown.

A new UK wildlife crime unit to track down gangs of smugglers will be a key part of the hard-hitting blitz.
Wildlife crime crackdown
A national wildlife crime unit
DNA tests sensitive enough to detect products containing only 10% tiger bone
Jail terms of two years or more for persistent wildlife criminals
More power for police and courts
And persistent offenders will be given tougher penalties, as part of the effort to halt the illegal trade in exotic animals and their body parts.

Scores of species, including big cats and rhinos, are threatened with extinction due to poaching, despite tough international laws.

Every year, thousands of animals, ranging from tigers to reptiles and macaws, are smuggled into Britain, dead or alive, on their way to America or the Far East.

The illegal trade is so vast it is second only to the drugs trade, and smugglers often work in organised gangs using containers to transport animals.
Macaws are sometimes smuggled alive
Parts such as ivory, wool and bones are used to make goods including ornaments, clothing and even Chinese medicine.

The more rare an animal becomes, the more valuable it is.

The animals are poorly treated, and taking them from their habitat means threatening the survival of the species.

Tougher penalties

Last year alone, customs officers seized 50,000 animal items.

Birds and plants will also be protected by the new clampdown. Egg collectors, for example, could face jail terms in future.

UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher outlined the new measures planned, at a seminar at London Zoo, called the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (PAW).

He said the tougher penalties are contained in the Countryside Amenity and Conservation Bill due to be published shortly.
Rhinos face extinction through poaching
It will boost the powers of the police and the courts, including jail sentences for serious offenders.

Mr Meacher also called for better detection and awareness of wildlife crime by the police, magistrates and judges.

He said: "The appreciation of the significance of wildlife crime does not exist as fully as it should in the community or at magistrates' or the higher level of courts.

"We need better detection and liaison. We also need crime treated more seriously and tougher penalties."

International action

The wildlife crime unit will be headed by Acting Chief Constable of Warwickshire Constabulary, Mick Brewer, who said wildlife crime remained on the periphery of police activity .

He said: "With this unit we can bring together police, customs, other law enforcers and can work with major international organisations like Interpol so we can identify who the criminals are and have a far greater impact to stop this criminal activity."
Even tigers could die out
He said it would be a tragedy if some species became extinct.

Mr Meacher said: "This new unit will keep Britain at the forefront of global efforts to tackle wildlife crime. We have to step up our battle to beat the wildlife bandits - from bird egg thieves to tiger and rhino poachers.

"No stone can remain unturned as we focus on every aspect of wildlife crime, from illegal theft and sales to import and export of endangered animals.

"We owe it to our children to promote effective wildlife law enforcement, nationally and internationally."

Grahame Elliot, head of the wildlife investigations section at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said the announcement was "great news for wildlife".

"The next logical step would be to see a full-time wildlife liaison officer employed in each constabulary region."

  Mick Brewer, Warwickshire Police
Certain animals will simply disappear unless we do something
  The BBC's Margaret Gilmore reports
"The illegal market in rare pets is growing fast"
See also:

29 Oct 99 | Asia-Pacific
13 Jan 00 | South Asia
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