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Rare species seized in crackdown

Published 19/06/2015

Border Force chief Grant Miller with a tiger pelt uncovered during Operation Cobra
Border Force chief Grant Miller with a tiger pelt uncovered during Operation Cobra
Tim Luffman, a wildlife enforcement officer from Border Force, holds a veiled chameleon seized during the operation
Three of 400 spur-thighed tortoises discovered by Border Force officials

Ivory tusks, bear claws and 400 live tortoises were among the thousands of items seized by UK Border Force in a worldwide operation to tackle the "illegal and barbaric" trade of endangered animals and plants.

Staff also uncovered a chameleon in a handbag, scorpions in postal packages and a polar bear skin in luggage during the intensive six-week operation which saw 62 countries work together to prevent the illegal movement of endangered species across international borders.

On a global scale, Thai customs made one of their biggest seizures of elephant ivory in their history.

More than 300 different animals and plants and their derivatives were seized by Border Force and police at UK airports and ports, as they worked together for Operation Cobra 3 which has resulted in 28 police investigations.

Other seizures included 166 turquoise blue geckos, 10,000 sea horses, 400 Horsefield tortoises, 11 black bear claws, 23 orchid and cacti seizures, 157 seizures of health supplements and 57 ivory products.

Grant Miller, Border Force's head of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), said the UK is an important logistical transit hub for criminal gangs and smugglers of products from endangered animals, including ivory from critically-at-risk rhinos in Africa.

However, many of the seizures are from individuals who do not have the right documentation to own their protected pet, like a reptile, or are ignorant of rules about importing and exporting plant products or animal parts such as ivory.

Mr Miller said: "We have to recognise there is a perfectly legal wildlife trade. Our job is to find the criminality within that - where people do not comply with the regulations, from getting the permits to the organised criminals who will take critically endangered iguanas and put them into socks and hide them in suitcases.

"It's all levels that we need to tackle to ensure the supply chain of animals and their derivatives being moved around the world so plants and animals are preserved for future generations.

"We must do something to control this barbaric trade. It's not just iconic species like rhinos and elephants but the frogs, the reptiles, the tortoises, the plants, the timbers, the great forests. We have natural resources across the world we need to preserve.

"The UK is a transit point for the trade, the legal and the illegal. Because of where we are, we a logistical hub and things move through us.

"I see ivory being shipped out of Africa, it transits through logistical hubs in the UK and going on to China. Rhino horn being trafficked to Vietnam, Iguanas being trafficked to Europe but through the UK airports and Heathrow in particular.

"It's a fight - every single day we find something different. We've had tortoises in cigarette packets, poisonous snakes within parcels in the post, insects, scorpions in the post fairly regularly."

Western health supplements and herbal products are a new focus for Border Force, because of their increasing use of endangered plants.

Tim Luffman, from the Cites team, whose role includes checking daily shipments for illegal wildlife, said: "Quite often, passengers who are travelling with a pet may not realise what they're doing is smuggling an illegal animal.

"While it may be someone's pet, it's still an endangered species and we wouldn't know if this has been illegally taken from the wild as opposed to being born in captivity and without the right documentation it results in the animal being seized.

"We're there predominantly to catch major criminals and smuggling gangs, we don't want to take pets off people.

"Only last week we had 400 tortoises come in. They were suitably packed for travel but the person didn't have the right documentation.

"Then we had some fairly rare turquoise blue geckos smuggled in a shipment of reptiles and the importer in that case was arrested.

"Wildlife smuggling has links with terrorism, certainly out in Africa with the ivory and rhino poaching. On a global scale we're talking about a huge amount of money and it goes hand in hand with other criminality."

In a major detection, Thai Customs seized 4.3 tonnes of ivory hidden in containers originating in the Democratic Republic of Congo and en route for Laos.

A week later another seizure of 3.1 tonnes of elephant tusks from Kenya were discovered hidden in sacks of tea in containers that were also bound for Laos. The 511 pieces are estimated to be worth 6 million US dollars (£3.8 million).

As a result, a criminal network involved in the illegal trade of elephant ivory from Kenya to Laos was uncovered and led to a number of arrests.

Other international seizures included more than 198lb (90kg) of coral and 110lb (50kg) of animal parts, including heads and horns, found in Spain, more than 1,102lb (500kg )of frozen eels in Poland, 800 cacti in a joint German and Chinese operation, and 16 whale ribs seized in the Netherlands.

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