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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2006, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
UK wildlife crime centre launched
Rare birds eggs
The eggs of rare endangered species are targeted by thieves
A new unit to tackle wildlife crime across the UK has been launched.

The unit, based in North Berwick, will tackle the illegal trade in endangered species and will try to prevent the persecution of rare birds and animals.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit, which was inaugurated in Edinburgh, is being led by the police but will link up with customs officers and wildlife experts.

It is estimated the worldwide illegal trade in animals, skins and trophies ranges in value from 2bn-6bn a year.

Customs officers have seized nearly 8,000 live birds and animals being smuggled into Britain since 2003.

Lothian and Borders Police will host the multi-agency operation, which will gather, analyse and co-ordinate wildlife crime intelligence.

It's wholesale criminal organisations in the same way that we talk about people trafficking
Barry Gardiner
Biodiversity minister

Launching the unit at Edinburgh's Dynamic Earth, biodiversity minister Barry Gardiner said it was about tackling the billion-pound international trade in endangered species, not "saving fluffy bunny rabbits".

"We are talking about people who think it is acceptable to kill endangered animals because their fur is a fashion statement, or steal a rare bird's egg because it's one that they don't yet have in their collection, or root out a threatened plant because they know it will fetch a fortune on the black market," he said.

"If it was individuals alone doing this that would be a tragic indictment, but it's not.

"It's organised criminal gangs, it's wholesale criminal organisations in the same way that we talk about people trafficking, the same way that we talk about drug trafficking."

'Impact on lives'

Paddy Tomkins, chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, said: "The significance of wildlife crime cannot and should not be under-estimated.

"It has a direct impact on the economic, environmental and cultural lives of communities, and that is especially true in Scotland where we have some very diverse and critically important wildlife."

In February, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) committed a further 200,000 to the unit, enabling it to expand.

First piloted in 2002, it was originally run from within the National Criminal Intelligence Service to gather and analyse national and international intelligence with the support of Defra, the Scottish Executive, the Association of Chief Police Officers, HM Revenue and Customs and the Home Office.

As part of its future operations, a team of investigative support officers will also directly support the work of police wildlife crime officers across the UK police forces.

Meanwhile, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has released a list of the worst blackspots in the UK for attacks on birds of prey.

The RSPB's crime database revealed that between 1995 and 2006 there were 1,113 confirmed incidents of birds of prey being poisoned, shot at or having their nests destroyed.

With 494 incidents, Scotland had the highest total of recorded attacks, followed by England, which suffered 454.

Some 142 incidents were recorded in Wales, compared to 23 in Northern Ireland.

Some of the illegal rare animal products seized

Wildlife crime Pc's work praised
07 Sep 06 |  England

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