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Heathrow tops Britain's illegal wildlife trade

Planet Ark

UK: 10th December 2002

LONDON - Britain is at the hub of a growing illegal trade in endangered species, with smugglers taping plants to their bodies, hiding eggs in special body gear or even wearing a live snake belt, campaign groups said yesterday.

"There is evidence that organised gangs including the Russian Mafia and drugs cartels are increasingly involved in this global trade," the report, Switching Channels, by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and TRAFFIC said.
It said Britain accounted for 12 percent of all European Union exports and re-exports of permitted species, illustrating its importance in legal trade and pointing to the potential for illegal exploitation of the networks.

The report said Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport, also topped the national table for the most seizures of consignments of illegal wildlife.

Between 1996 and 2000, Customs and Excise officers made 1,001 seizures of wildlife contraband - well ahead of the 201 seizures at number two on the list Manchester Airport.

Third on the list was London's Gatwick Airport, followed by Tilbury docks, Liverpool docks and the Shetland Islands capital Lerwick.

Seventh in the British top 10 was Birmingham Airport, followed by the Waterloo International rail terminal and the ports of Greenock and Felixstowe.

"Smugglers go to great lengths to disguise their activities," WWF campaign director David Cowdrey said. "Most commonly, permit papers are doctored in an attempt to cover their tracks."

"However, there are cases where a live snake has been worn like a belt, plants have been taped to the body and egg collectors have worn specially made body vests with pouches for live eggs," he added.

The report, compiled from a number of sources including customs seizures, the EU and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), said the illegal trade was escalating.

The legal trade was calculated at close to $160 billion in the early 1990s, and while it was almost impossible to put a figure on the illegal trade, evidence suggested it was large, lucrative and growing.

"The potential links between the global illegal wildlife trade and the drugs, arms and human trade are clear," WWF spokesman Stuart Chapman said. "The police need the necessary powers to apprehend and deter wildlife trade criminals."

The report said that historically the most significant transhipment centres for the illegal wildlife trade had been Hong Kong and Singapore, but that recently the United Arab Emirates had grown in importance.

Poor policing internationally was compounded by the 15-member EU's open internal borders, the report said.

Illegal goods such as Siberian Tiger skins, live birds from the Far East, bush babies from Africa and lemurs from Latin America had been found being smuggled into the EU for sale or onshipment to the United States.

Story by Jeremy Lovell