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Monday, 22 April, 2002, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Wildlife crime in the UK
Crocodile boots
Many illegal goods are bought by unwitting tourists
The new National Wildlife Crime Unit aims to tackle the thousands of crimes involving wildlife being carried out in the UK each year.

It follows research from Wolverhampton University which found wildlife crime in the UK could be split into three broad areas - which, listed by popularity, were:

  • Bird-related, with birds of prey being shot, eggs being stolen and rare birds traded
  • Illegal smuggling of endangered species to make medicines, exotic pets or fashion items
  • Cruel activities such as badger-baiting

World Wildlife Fund campaign director David Cowdrey told BBC News Online the smuggling trade in the UK was "enormous".

A report published earlier this year found an average of 570 illegal wildlife items were being seized by customs every day.

Most trafficking was in "dead" items derived from animals - mainly oriental medicines, items made from reptile skins, and coral and seashells.

Animals smuggled live were most commonly reptiles, tortoises and turtles, parrots and macaws which could sell for up to 100,000.

Top wildlife crimes in the UK, 1999-2001
Birds/eggs: 2,404
Trading: 1,472
Badger-related: 653
Cruelty to wild animals: 572
Poaching-related: 444
Source: Wolverhampton University report estimates

Mr Cowdrey said organised gangs were behind many of the consignments, but avid collectors and unwitting tourists were also responsible for large amounts.

In 2000, customs officers in the UK seized nearly 8,000 wildlife items from returning holiday-makers.

Mr Cowdrey said there was a lot of covering-up by the gangs within the UK, so that the final consumer did not realise they were buying an illegal product.

Illicit caviar, for instance - which is regulated to protect the sturgeon - is often passed off to shops and customers as the regulated item.

In 2000, customs officers in the UK seized nearly 8,000 wildlife items from returning holiday-makers

Demand was also being driven inadvertently by the fashion industry.

The WWF pointed to a recent court case in which a firm was found with a stock of 138 shahtoosh shawls, made from the fur of Tibetan antelopes, worth more than 300,000.

Just to make those shawls, spokesman Anthony Field told BBC News Online, 2% of the global population of Tibetan antelopes, critically endangered and banned from global trade, would have been killed.

Obsessive rivalries

The RSPB was most concerned by the cumulative damage done by individuals not realising, or not caring, about the impact of their activities.

Graham Elliott, head of investigations for the charity, told BBC News Online about 300 egg collectors were actively operating at anyone time, not realising that their obsessive rivalries were in danger of wiping out several population species.

One UK firm's stock of 138 shahtoosh shawls was made from 2% of the endangered Tibetan antelope population

Gamekeepers and pigeon fanciers were destroying hundreds of birds of prey each year in efforts to protect grouse, pheasants and racing pigeons, he said.

"The hen harrier is now virtually extinct in England, and this is due entirely to illegal persecution."

But trading of birds was "where the big money is", he said, with most illegal trading done on a small-scale but widespread basis.

TB 'scapegoat'

This varied from chaffinches and greenfinches being taken from the wild and sold on for 20 to people who kept and displayed them, to rare birds of prey being moved from country to country for thousands of pounds a piece.

Such trading was largely carried out by "people who know it's illegal but they're so driven to own, say, a rare parrot that they turn a blind eye."

An estimated 10,000 badgers of the 300,000 or so in the UK are baited every year, with gangs taking part in illegal organised sessions.

People know it's illegal but they're so driven to own, say, a rare parrot that they turn a blind eye

RSPB investigator Graham Elliott
Campaigners say most take part in this sport not for profit, but for excitement and entertainment.

They have also expressed concern that farmers anxious that badgers transmitted bovine TB were illegally killing them.

All badgers and their setts are protected in law under The Protection of Badgers Act 1992.

Anyone who takes, kills or injures a badger, or who interferes with a badger sett, can be sent to prison for six months or fined up to 5,000.

See also:

22 Apr 02 | UK
Wildlife criminals targeted
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