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SOS Rhino : In the News : Archived News : May 2002 : UK a haven for traffickers of rare species

UK a haven for traffickers of rare species


John Vidal
Thursday May 9, 2002
The Guardian

Report for WWF warns against lax laws and small fines

British wildlife traffickers are smuggling in some of the world's most endangered animals knowing that that there is little chance of being prosecuted and only a remote threat of being given prison sentences or substantial fines, an independent report suggests.

Britain is becoming an international centre for the illegal wildlife trade as a result of weak laws and magistrates' ignorance of the environmental impact that the traffickers are having on rare species, say university researchers commissioned by the WWF .

"There is an apparent lack of seriousness attached to wildlife trade offences", say the report's authors. "The attitude of the UK's legal system is inconsistent and erratic, and does not reflect the impact of the crimes. The courts perceive wildlife crime as low priority although it is on the increase".

In one case, the researchers found that magistrates only imposed a fine of £1,500 on a company which had imported £350,000 of shatoosh wool shawls made from the coats of the endangered Tibetan antelope. It was estimated that up to 1,000 animals had been killed to make the 138 shawls.

In another case a man caught selling three Lear's Macaws was given an absolute discharge, even though fewer than 150 remain in the wild.

Wildlife crime is known to be increasing in Britain, with more than a million items found by customs and excise in the past four years. But, says the report, only 30 prosecutions have resulted from 2,211 known shipments of endangered animals during this period.

"The discrepancy is huge. Even the biggest seizures are not inevitably prosecuted. The largest 10 seizures only resulted in two cases", says the report.

Many crimes are not being investigated, say the authors, because offences under the control of trade in endangered species law which governs the trade within the UK of globally rare species are not arrestable.

However, people caught trading UK native rare species can be arrested under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. "It's bizarre that a person can be arrested for selling a common frog which is a protected UK species, but can't be arrested for selling a tiger or rhino - some of the world's rarest species. The law needs to be changed, giving it stiffer penalties and making offences arrestable to help police stop this scandalous trade", says Francis Sullivan, WWF conservation director.

The report says that the police do not have resources to bring prosecutions, but suggests that this could be because the fines are so low and prosecutions so difficult to pursue that they do not bother. The authorities are thought to have problems in identifying endangered species and interpreting the legislation.

But other countries, the report says, have far more stringent laws than Britain. In Germany, wildlife traffickers can be jailed for 10 years for trading in certain species and fines in the US can be as high as £163,000. In Britain, only 49 smugglers have been fined a total of £50,720 in the past 15 years, and the average fine in the past four years has been £963, less than it was in 1987.

The report recommends that that the government issues sentencing guidelines to raise the perception of the seriousness of the crimes among magistrates and judges.

Yesterday the government said that powers of arrest for police officers and increased penalties for endangered species offences would be considered as part of the department's forthcoming review of the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997.

Crimes against wildlife

· Shahtoosh, a fine wool from the fleece of the Tibetan antelope, can only be obtained by killing the animal. The antelope is on the critically endangered list. In 1997, UK police seized 138 shawls, valued at £353,000, from the Renaissance Corporation in London. Up to 1,000 animals would have been killed to make them, but the firm was fined just £1,500.

· There are thought to be fewer than 150 Lear's macaws left in the wild, and one breeding pair can change hands for £50,000. In 1998, Harold Sissen was prosecuted after three of the birds were found on his premises. He was sentenced to 30 months' prison, which was later reduced to 18 months, and also fined £5,000.

· In 1998 Wilfred Bull, while in prison for murder, tried to sell 120 rhino horns worth £2.88m. He was sentenced to 15 months and the horns were forfeited, but a later appeal accepted there was no proof he had bought them illegally and they were returned to him.

· Raymond Humphrey and others were found guilty in 1997 of collaborating to capture and smuggle dozens of rare birds of prey from Thailand. The birds were packed in plastic tubes and many died in transit. Humphrey was found guilty on 22 counts and given six years' jail, the most severe penalty yet imposed for wildlife offences.



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