Key quote "We are talking about something on a par with drug trafficking and people trafficking, with the same nasty people involved." - Barry Gardiner, minister for biodiversity
Story in full ONE is fragile, one powerful, one graceful and the other ugly. The slipper orchid, the rhino, the snow leopard and the freshwater mussel would appear to have little in common. Yet all four are at the heart of a war between organised criminals and the UK's newest police unit.
Criminals plundering the natural world for its rarest species are feeding an international black market worth up to 6 billion a year. In Britain alone, customs officers seized more than a million plants, live animals, dead animals, animal parts and oriental medicines derived from endangered species in a 12-month period.
Experts believe far more specimens are couriered through customs by gangs which then use the massive profits to fund other criminal activities such as drug smuggling and people trafficking.
Attempting to stop them are the 14 officers of the North Berwick-based National Wildlife Crime Unit, that was officially launched yesterday. The officers will work with customs and excise and Interpol as well as police forces around Britain to co-ordinate the crackdown on the trade.
In addition to international crime, they are expected to fight domestic wildlife crime, such as the poisoning of birds of prey and badger baiting.
Using similar methods to the national drug enforcement agency, the wildlife unit provides expertise and intelligence to help police forces to prosecute criminals across the UK.
Launching the unit in Edinburgh, Barry Gardiner, the minister for biodiversity, said the unit was not about "saving fluffy bunny rabbits" but tackling serious crime.
He said the illegal trade in plants and animals involved serious criminals.
"This is not some fuzzy-edged idea that is soft and nice. It is about stopping crime and understanding wildlife crime is as serious as any other crime. We are talking about something on a par with drug trafficking and people trafficking, with the same nasty people involved."
Mr Gardiner said the trade in endangered animals had brought many species close to extinction.
He said: "It only takes the removal of one species to upset the balance and potentially bring the whole eco-system crashing down.
"That is bad enough when it happened in the pursuit of economic growth and human development, but when it happens out of human greed, it shows our species at its worst.
"We are talking about people who think it is acceptable to kill because they know it will fetch a fortune on the black market.
"If it was individuals doing this, that would be a tragic indictment, but it is not; it is organised criminal gangs, wholesale criminal organisations - and these people are bankrolling their illegal activities with their wildlife crime. This unit is about stopping those criminals and their organisations in their tracks."
Paddy Tomkins, the Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police, said organised criminal gangs were at the forefront of the trade in illegal wildlife.
"The international trade in protected endangered species is the third most lucrative criminal trade in the world [after arms and drugs]. We are talking not just about animal and animal products here but plants from very, very fragile habitats. And we are talking about extremely high-value goods. For example, sturgeon caviare can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds. In some cultures, the products of rhino horns or tiger bones are all extremely valuable."
Items such as shantoosh shawls, made from the ultra-light wool of the highly endangered chiru antelope in Tibet, can sell for up to 15,000 and a peregrine falcon stolen in Scotland could be sold in the Middle East for 5,000. A haul of 127 rhino horns seized in the UK in 1996 had a value of 2.8 million.
A WWF report in 2002 found that organised criminal gangs, including the Russian mafia and drugs cartels, used existing smuggling routes for illegal commodities such as small arms and drugs to trade in highly profitable wildlife.
Mr Tomkins said criminal gangs could get the goods from poachers in third-world countries to collectors for huge profit. "This is not individuals who, through misplaced enthusiasm, are egg collecting; this is a high-level criminal activity with sophisticated distribution trails predating very, very fragile habitat," he said.
A dedicated website has been launched at www.nwcu.police.uk.
Chris Kerr, a police officer seconded from Cleveland who is in charge of the unit, believes they have already made an impact.
"It is absolutely important, and the general public agree it is important," he said. "This is our heritage - the green side of our lives. But some of this will not be there in the future if we allow criminals to destroy our wildlife."
ANIMALS AT RISK
The tiger is still highly sought after for its fur and bones, and other parts of the big cat are used in Chinese medicine. Although there has been a concerted campaign to stop the trade, demand has increased in the past seven years in the major consuming countries - China, Korea and Taiwan - as a result of growing human populations and increasing personal wealth. It is believed medicines made with tiger parts cure rheumatism and other ailments.
Much of the trade in tiger parts will come through Britain. Last year, 826,365 items for the preparations of oriental medicines which include parts of and derivatives of endangered species were seized by HM Customs and Excise.
Tigers are also exported illegally as exotic pets and their pelts are used as a fashionable fur. There are now no more than 4,500 Indian tigers in the wild.
The illegal trade in the luxury food known as "black gold" is a priority for the new national wildlife crime unit.
Certain caviar from a female beluga sturgeon can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds, and this trade is likely to be related to serious organised crime in source countries such as Russia.
The majority of the world's caviar come from the Caspian Sea, with 70 per cent of this originating from two countries, Iran and Russian. In the last 15 years the Caspian population has fallen by 40 per cent.
The US accounts for 25 per cent of the world Beluga market and is the single largest importer.
Between 2000-05 the EU seized 12 tonnes of illegal caviar.
Globally, 1,150 tonnes of caviar has been imported between 1998 and 2003.
The UK's most intensively persecuted bird of prey is a priority for the wildlife police.
In recent days the RSPB has revealed that between 1995 and 2006 there were 1,113 confirmed incidents of birds of prey being poisoned, shot at or having their nests destroyed.
Scotland had the highest total of recorded incidents with 494, while England suffered 454. Wales and Northern Ireland recorded 142 and 23 incidents.The persecution of the hen harrier is one of the national conservation priorities identified by the Wildlife Law Enforcement Working Group which meets annually under the guidance of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The police response to this criminality is known as Operation ARTEMIS and it has a full-time co-ordinator.
One of the key aims of the new unit is to protect Scotland from the threat of avian flu from exotic birds smuggled into the country.
At this time, it is unclear whether there are particular criminal concerns surrounding the avian influenza issue.
Early indications suggest that there may be some individuals involved in quarantine premises that should not be.
What is clear is that controlling the illegal trade in smuggling exotic birds into the UK would be a vital tool in reducing the chances of the reintroduction of bird flu.
The true extent of the smuggling and movement of birds into the UK is unknown.
This is a new area of work for the NWCU and will be their focused in the coming year.
The height of the fashion for ivory jewellery has long passed in the West but it is still in demand.
In 2004-5 Her Majesty's Customs and Excise seized 192 ivory items - up from 127 the year before.
Most of the ivory is from poached elephants in Africa.
Kenya had at most 65,000 elephants in the late 1970s, according to IUCN - the World Conservation Union. But poachers and other threats have reduced the herds to between 22,000 and 29,000.
A recent report the International Fund for Animal Welfare said the illegal ivory trade in Britain was "thriving" because of a huge, unregulated market on the internet and a fashion for carving the ivory to make it look antique.
Rare exotic orchids which grow in fragile habitats are sought after by collectors. The flowers most in demand come from south-east Asia and South America, such as the rare slipper orchid.
Although hybrid varieties can be grown from seed it takes up to seven years to flower. The wild plant is also rarer. They sell to collectors for around 6,000 per plant.
Earlier this year a doctor was jailed for trying to smuggle 126 orchids through Heathrow. Dr Sian Lim was jailed for four months.
When the flowers are seized in Scotland they can be taken to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh for protection. Many rare varieties of orchid are also found in Scotland where they are also protected.
Badgers are common in Britain, even in urban areas.
Every badger and every sett is protected by law, but the animals are increasingly threatened by illegal snaring, poisoning and particularly the activities of badger baiters who dig them from their setts before pitting them against dogs. It is estimated 10,000 badgers are killed this way each year.
Badgers are also killed illegally by "lamping". A powerful lamp is used to dazzle badgers while they are feeding in fields. The badgers are then shot or set upon by dogs. Despite these crimes, road traffic accidents account for the vast majority of injured and dead badgers that people find in Britain every year.
The ultra-light wool of the highly endangered chiru antelope from Tibet has become a fashion item in recent years.
More exclusive and softer than the pashmina, the shahtoosh, translated from Persian as "king of woven cloth", shawl is popular in the west. At the moment a single embroidered shawl can be sold for up to 15,000. In 1999 police seized 138 shawls with a value of 353,000 being illegally offered from a shop in Mayfair. The owner was fined but the penalty has since risen from three to five years imprisonment.
About 20,000 Tibetan chiru antelopes are thought to be killed every year to supply the trade; conservationists estimate only 72,500 are left.
Most rhino species are either endangered or critically endangered, according to the WWF. Their horns are used in traditional Asian medicine, and for dagger handles in Yemen and Oman.
Rhino horn is still traded, but is legal only when it comes from documented sources.
To date, almost 18 tonnes of rhino horn have been documented in east and southern Africa.
In 1999 Wilfred Bull, 63, from Cambridgeshire, was jailed for 15 months and his collection of more than 120 undocumented rhino horns confiscated. The RSPCA said the collection, one of the largest in the world, was worth 2.8m and represented 1 per cent of the current rhino population.
FRESHWATER PEARL MUSSELS
The shellfish are still in demand despite being driven almost to extinction.
They are still harvested for pearls in Scotland although it is illegal and has been for more than 20 years. It is suspected there is a criminal network in place illegally harvesting and distributing the pearls.
Freshwater pearl mussels can live for 80 to 100 years but only mature after around ten to 15 years, so young mussels cannot form a sustainable population.
Because of destruction for the pearls they sometimes contain, pollution and the decline of salmon which form part of their life cycle, the pearl mussel is now one of Scotland's most endangered species.
They are extinct or populations are not viable in 70 per cent of sites in which they were once found.