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19 Oct 06
What is wildlife crime?
WHO, WHAT, WHY? The Magazine answers...
A new National Wildlife Crime Unit has been set up to target wildlife crime on a regional, national and international level.
But what is it?
It's not about saving "fluffy bunny rabbits" but tackling an illegal billion-pound industry. That's how biodiversity minister Barry Gardiner describes the new National Wildlife Crime Unit.
So what exactly is wildlife crime and why is it so important that a new multi-agency body has been set up to tackle it?
Wildlife crime in the UK involves the illegal trade of endangered species and plants.
It not only threatens protected species in this country and globally, but also adds to the destruction of habitats. Anything from birds of prey to freshwater pearls are targeted by criminals in the UK.
It also poses a health risk to domestic livestock and to the public through the introduction of disease.
The UK has some of the most stringent wildlife controls anywhere in the world when it comes to this type of crime, but it still continues to cause serious concern.
It is difficult to put a figure on the money made from illegal wildlife trading, but the potential profits are vast. The international trade in endangered species is estimated to be worth up to £6bn, according to police figures.
In the UK it is estimated to be worth up to £64m. Just one rhino horn can fetch £2,000 on the black market and a pair of Lear's Macaws £50,000. Last year alone UK customs seized 7,846 live birds and animals, 332,043 animal parts and 192 ivory objects.
In six wildlife trade prosecutions in this country between 1996 and 2002, the total value of wildlife involved totalled more than £4m. These cases involved items such as rhino horns, parrots, birds of prey and shahtoosh shawls - made from the under wool of endangered Tibetan antelope or chiru.
The UK is primarily a destination for illegally traded wildlife, but it's also a source and transit country.
Various wildlife and derivative products are traded illegally here. Live specimens such as parrots, birds of prey and reptiles are sought by collectors and the pet trade.
There are also markets for animal and plant derivatives, including caviar, ivory and traditional Asian - particularly Chinese - medicines containing extracts from endangered species.
"We are talking about people who think it is acceptable to kill endangered animals because their fur is a fashion statement," says Mr Gardiner. "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.
"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."
Many illegal traders are also involved in the legal trade, say police. They use their legitimate businesses to conceal their criminal activities. They tend to have a high level of specialist knowledge, both of the wildlife itself and of the regulations controlling its importation, export, and sale. Some are professional criminals, but few links have been identified to other areas of serious organised crime.
"The significance of wildlife crime cannot and should not be underestimated," says Paddy Tomkins, Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police. "It has a direct impact on the economic, environmental and cultural lives of communities. Wildlife crime is not victimless - it impoverishes us all."
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