A CHAMELEON in a handbag, bear claws and 400 live tortoises were among the thousands of items seized by the UK Border Force in a worldwide operation to tackle the “illegal and barbaric” trade of endangered animals and plants.
Staff also uncovered ivory tusks, scorpions in postal packages and a polar bear skin in luggage during the intensive six-week operation which saw 62 countries work together to prevent the illegal movement of endangered species – dead or alive – across international borders.
On a global scale, Thai customs made one of their biggest seizures of elephant ivory in their history.
More than 300 different animals and plants and their derivatives were seized by Border Force and police at UK airports and ports, as they worked together for Operation Cobra 3 which has resulted in 28 police investigations.
Other seizures included 166 turquoise blue geckos, 10,000 seahorses, 400 Horsefield tortoises, 11 black bear claws, 23 orchid and cacti hauls, 157 seizures of health supplements and 57 ivory products.
Grant Miller, Border Force’s head of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), said the UK is an important logistical transit hub for criminal gangs and smugglers of products from endangered animals, including ivory from critically at-risk rhinos in Africa.
However, many of the seizures are from individuals who do not have the right documentation to own their protected pet, like a reptile, or are ignorant of rules about importing and exporting plant products or animal parts such as ivory.
Mr Miller said: “We have to recognise there is a perfectly legal wildlife trade.
“Our job is to find the criminality within that – where people do not comply with the regulations, from getting the permits to the organised criminals who will take critically endangered iguanas and put them into socks and hide them in suitcases.
“It’s all levels that we need to tackle to ensure the supply chain of animals and their derivatives being moved around the world so plants and animals are preserved for future generations.
“We must do something to control this barbaric trade. It’s not just iconic species like rhinos and elephants but the frogs, the reptiles, the tortoises, the plants, the timbers, the great forests. We have natural resources across the world we need to preserve.
“The UK is a transit point for the trade, the legal and the illegal. Because of where we are, we are a logistical hub and things move through us.
“I see ivory being shipped out of Africa, it transits through logistical hubs in the UK, and going on to China . . . rhino horn being trafficked to Vietnam, iguanas being trafficked to Europe but through the UK airports and Heathrow in particular.
“It’s a fight – every single day we find something different. We’ve had tortoises in cigarette packets, poisonous snakes within parcels in the post, insects, scorpions in the post fairly regularly.”
Western health supplements and herbal products are a new focus for Border Force, because of their increasing use of endangered plants.