UK: Gangs raking in thousands from the rising tide of wildlife crime

Report reveals the extent of poaching and poisoning and calls for tougher sanctions
Tracy McVeigh The Observer The Guardian 9 Aug 14;

Hare-coursing, which is illegal in the UK, can generate thousands for criminal gangs.
Hare-coursing, which is illegal in the UK, can generate thousands for criminal gangs. Photograph: Alamy

Poaching, poisoning and the theft of animals may sound like activities from Britain's past, but modern gangs are muscling in on the act.

A new report claims the scale of the problem is being hidden and that gangs are making large sums of money from illegal activities such as hare-coursing, raking in up to £10,000 a month in one case, while poaching of fish and deer is common and as likely to happen in urban parks as in the countryside.

In the report published this week – the first such work to look at the broad range of wildlife crime in the UK – the charity World Animal Protection (WAP) says it presents a worrying picture of how the problem is affecting not only the individual animals and fish but also our biodiversity.

The fact that statistics on wildlife crime, from badger-baiting to disruption of habitats, are not being collated by police forces is a major stumbling block to tackling the crimes, says the charity.

While people will pay high prices for creatures and wildlife products smuggled in from abroad – powdered rhino horn is worth more than cocaine or gold at £40,000 a kilo – a large live carp can fetch £12,000 for a poacher and a deer £200, and the government is being urged to get its own house in order and look after British wildlife.

Alyx Elliott, campaigns manager at WAP (formerly the World Society for the Protection of Animals), said polling by the charity on public awareness of the issue had been startling. "It really brought to life for us how low awareness is in the UK; 86% of the public didn't know that the police had wildlife crime officers. If they don't know that – if they don't know that this is a crime – then the big worry is that they won't be reporting it."

Currently, police forces are not required to keep separate statistics on such incidents.

The poisoning of animals such as foxes and rabbits or birds of prey is also a public health issue, with substances potentially lethal to humans being used.

"There is a big question about carbofuran [a pesticide which has been linked to poisonings], which is turning up in a few cases. This is a deadly substance banned right across Europe that can kill a human being, let alone a dog or other animal which happens to come across it," Elliott said. "There are questions to be asked about where this is coming from. Is it imported illegally or are there stockpiles?"

The charity is calling for a more consistent approach to wildlife crime across the UK and for tougher sanctions. While most police forces have a wildlife crime officer, often it is someone who does most of that work in his or her spare time.

"A significant percentage of police intelligence reports relate to poaching of UK species – which includes hare-coursing, fish and deer poaching. All of these result in terrible suffering for the animals, as well as often being linked to other criminality, such as antisocial behaviour and organised crime," said Elliott.

The report has been endorsed by the charity's celebrity backers – actor and writer Stephen Fry, Deborah Meaden of Dragons' Den and zoologist Charlotte Uhlenbroek – who all signed an open letter thatcalled poachers in the UK just as morally reprehensible as people who shoot endangered animals abroad.

"People who carry this out in Africa when poaching elephants or rhinos, or in India when shooting tigers are roundly condemned as unscrupulous criminals," it reads. "Individuals who know the price of everything, but the real value of nothing at all. But morally, nothing separates someone who kills a swan by throwing rocks at it in our country from someone shooting a wild animal for fun on the plains of southern Africa. Both are reprehensible and our perspective and condemnation of each should likewise be the same.

"And if we are to do that, then the public has a hugely powerful role in playing its part – a potential army of eyes and ears who can report and watch out for people engaged in this sort of soulless activity, many of whom we know are already engaged in other types of criminality.

"So although this report is by degrees shocking and sad," the open letter continues, "it could act as a clarion call to those concerned about our wildlife and to send a timely message to those who either enjoy or profit from harming it: the world has woken up to the seriousness of wildlife crime, people will no longer tolerate your actions, we're taking a stand."