Rise in smuggled animal products
Published 15/11/2013 | 00:41
Hippo teeth, walrus horns, tortoises and big cats are among some of the endangered animal items being smuggled into the country, border officials have said.
The Home Office has revealed that more items were confiscated between April 2012 and April 2013 than in any other year.
Other contraband included rhino horns, £4,000 shawls made of Tibetan antelope wool and books bound in elephant hide.
A Rolls Royce upholstered in alligator skin and a piece of artwork featuring a rare £35,000 rock pigeon clutched between the jaws of a human skull were also seized as well as eight live big cats and 466 Hermann's tortoises.
Grant Miller, the senior officer on the Border Force CITES team, said: "We have everything from rhino horn to ivory to the taxidermy items and marine species that we see being brought back into the UK, both in passengers' luggage - but more importantly, and in large quantities, through freight."
Items are confiscated at the border under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).
The 2012/13 year saw 690 items seized - up from 509 the previous year - and included 3,890kg of medicine containing extracts of endangered species, 326 ivory items and 93 live animals.
In a secret climate-controlled warehouse, shelves overflow with items waiting for CITES experts to see if they fall under the treaty.
Snakeskin and crocodile skin high heels, pinned butterflies, and boxes of health and bodybuilding supplements are piled alongside bags of animal hides and turquoise snakeskin hotpants.
On one shelf is a tiny stuffed tortoise, looking like a toy; nearby a larger marine turtle imported through Dover as a souvenir, its insides hollowed out.
Jan Sowa, who works with the CITES team, said: "I'm not surprised by anything any more."
One piece of ivory taken from a baby elephant was painted black to disguise it as a wooden artifact, while 12 bangles were wrapped in raffia.
But Mr Miller said the biggest shift has been in the beauty and fitness industries, where endangered species once used only in folk medicines are being sold as bodybuilding supplements and facial creams.
He said: "The market is evolving - there is more demand from a wider set of consumers.
"From the traditional Chinese medicine products that we used to see we're now seeing new age beauty products, the health and fitness slimming pills, that are having endangered species within their ingredients."
While much of the trade is in rising Asian markets like China and Vietnam, Britain's position as a global logistics hub means CITES goods often come through its borders.
This year 500kg of face cream containing caviar extract were discovered being imported from China, while 126,000 pots of "Detonate" and 15,120 of "CRAZE" - bodybuilding supplements containing the rare orchid Dendrobium - were seized en route from the USA.
In May, a Manchester man received six months in prison for trying to import 750kg of live coral from Vietnam.
Mr Miller also cited the seizure of 2.3 tonnes of Indian Red Sandalwood on its way to Hong Kong as "carpets and Indian handicrafts".
He said: "The smuggler had moved it via courier freight - the most expensive way to move freight in the world, and they were moving logs through it. So clearly the profits in that for them are huge."
Immigration minister Mark Harper said: "Organised criminal gangs will smuggle anything if they think there is a profit to be made and animal products can be worth millions of pounds on the black market.
"The fact that this trade is contributing to the threat of extinction faced by many endangered species is of no interest to these ruthless traffickers.
"Officers are working tirelessly with partners in the National Crime Agency, the police and internationally to stamp out this illicit trade."