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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
Wildlife criminals targeted
Rare birds' eggs
Rare birds' eggs are stolen from nests and sold
A new organisation to tackle wildlife crime has been launched in the UK.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit will concentrate particularly on the trade in endangered species, estimated to be worth about 3bn a year worldwide.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said the unit would target "big time" criminals who were "pushing some of our most endangered species ever closer to extinction".

The unit, part of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), will gather intelligence, co-ordinate action by other agencies, identify trends and investigate links to other serious crimes.

NCIS director general John Abbott said: "Wildlife crime is motivated by profits and greed, and the perpetrators display other hallmarks of organised crime.

"As with art and antiques, rare species of flora and fauna command exceptionally high prices on the criminal market, and are often stolen to order by devious yet knowledgeable criminals.

Maximum black market prices
Ploughshare tortoises: 35,000
Lears macaws: 120,000
Rare orchids: 6,000.

"They use violence, corruption and extortion to obtain and traffic the wildlife."

Mr Abbott said: "Britain is not only a consumer of endangered species but also a principal point of entry to Europe. This is why we have a responsibility to help bring this pernicious trade under control.

"Wildlife crime is a specialist area of crime which needs a specialist and co-ordinated response."

The international wildlife trade
30,000 endangered plants and animals are regulated
Illegal trade worth an estimated 3.5bn worldwide
UK customs seize about 570 items per day
In the UK, investigations will also focus on the illegal trade in rare birds' eggs, and badger baiting and hare coursing.

Martin Roberts, who led the research team, said: "The big problem is that wildlife crime is viewed as victimless and the law tends to see this as less serious and so penalties are low.

"People [are] moving into types of wildlife crime where they can use the same skills from other offending activities, with low risk but potentially the same rewards".

Wildlife pressure groups welcomed the setting up of the new unit, but said it must be followed up by higher sentences from the courts if criminals are to be deterred from this highly profitable crime.

Ignorant tourists

About 350m animals, worth approximately US$20bn, are traded every year around the world, with 25% of the trade thought to be illegal.

Figures compiled last year showed UK customs officers were seizing about 570 illegal wildlife items every day.

But not all were smuggled by sophisticated gangs - many were brought in by holidaymakers who had not realised souvenirs made from materials such as ivory, coral or rare animal skin could be illegal.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said tourists who bought souvenirs made from endangered species were threatening them with extinction, and said: "If in doubt, don't buy".

The BBC's John Morrison
"Wildlife crime is motivated by profits and greed"
See also:

22 Apr 02 | UK
Wildlife crime in the UK
23 Apr 02 | Sci/Tech
Brazil's smuggled wildlife toll
16 Feb 00 | Sci/Tech
UK targets wildlife smugglers
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