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Organised Crime Cashes in on Wildlife

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/06/18; June 18, 2002.]

The Scotsman, 17 June 2002


ILLEGAL wildlife trafficking of some of the world's most endangered species is being taken over by organised criminal gangs including the Russian Mafia, according to a joint report published today.

The gangs are trading in highly profitable wildlife products by using existing smuggling routes for illegal commodities such as small arms, drugs and humans seeking a better life in the West.

The report, The International Wildlife Trade and Organised Crime, conducted by researchers at Wolverhampton University and supported by the WWF and TRAFFIC, says that 50 per cent of wildlife criminals prosecuted in the UK have previous convictions for drugs, violence, theft and firearms offences.

London has become a centre of the illegal international trade, with people travelling from all over the world to buy and sell items such as shahtoosh shawls, made from the ultra-light wool of the highly endangered chiru antelope from Tibet. An embroidered shawl can be sold for up to 15,000. In one case, police seized 138 shawls with a value of 353,000 being illegally offered for sale in a Mayfair shop.

Recently, Robert Sclare, 52, a taxidermist, was jailed for six months after he was convicted of forging documents to allow him to sell rare and threatened species at his shop in Islington, north London.

The haul included a tiger, a chimpanzee, leopards, birds of prey, a Chilean flamingo, a black panther, and a tiger cub.

Evidence suggests that the trend is reflected globally as organised crime groups get involved in the most lucrative areas of illegal wildlife trade.

Stuart Chapman, the UK head of the WWF's species programme, said: "This report confirms what many have suspected. The huge profits that can be made from wildlife trafficking are acting as a magnet to organised crime networks.

"The profits, sometimes worth up to 800 per cent, combined with the low risks of detection and lack of serious punishment, make the illegal wildlife trade very attractive to criminals."

In Brazil, recent estimates suggest that up to 40 per cent of illegal drug shipments are combined with wildlife.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has reported that more than a third of cocaine seized in the US in 1993 was associated with wildlife imports.

The same year, a US customs inspector in Miami noticed an unnatural bulge in a boa constrictor which was part of a shipment of 312 animals from Colombia. Investigators found cocaine-filled condoms had been inserted into 225 of the snakes. A total of 39 kilograms of cocaine was recovered from the reptiles, all of which died.

At Heathrow Airport in 1996, while inspecting a consignment of live foreign snails, customs officers discovered they were packed with heroin.

The report calls for three actions to combat the growing illegal trade: illegal markets must be identified; the networks of people within the criminal organisations must be identified; and stronger legislation must be created to hinder the gangs, enhance enforcement and close the legal loopholes.

Crawford Allan, the global enforcement co-ordinator for TRAFFIC, said: "We believe the main problems in the UK are a lack of investment in wildlife law enforcement and the minimal punishment under the wildlife trade laws that do not act as a deterrent to criminals.

"To give the necessary powers to our enforcement agencies the penalties need to be strengthened to ensure that the maximum penalties are increased to five years, which will make offences arrestable."

In April, the government took a significant step forward in tackling the illegal wildlife trade by creating the National Wildlife Criminal Intelligence Unit.

The unit will gather information on markets, criminals and networks, but will still have the power to arrest criminals for wildlife trade offences involving critically endangered species.

Over the past decade, police forces across Britain have become increasingly concerned by the rise in wildlife crime. Today, particularly in China, there are fortunes to be made from the illegal trade in Tibetan shahtoosh shawls, rhino horn, elephant tusks, or the illicit sale of live, exotic birds or orchids.

The profits available from the international trade in rare and endangered species are estimated to be worth 5 billion a year, so vast that they are second only to drugs.

The problem has become so serious that the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently announced the creation of a specialist squad of detectives to focus on wildlife crime.

The National Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit, based in London, provides Customs and Excise and Britain's police forces with intelligence on gangs and the routes they use to smuggle animals.

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