Thursday May 9, 2002
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
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
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
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
· 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