Illegal international wildlife trade as it affects the UK

Ivory figures seized by the Metropolitan Police wildlife crime unit. (Photo courtesy of Met Police)

Ivory figures seized by the Metropolitan Police wildlife crime unit. (Photo courtesy of Met Police)


Coats made from endangered animal furs seized by the Metropolitan Police wildlife crime unit (Photo courtesy of the Met Police)

Coats made from endangered animal furs seized by the Metropolitan Police wildlife crime unit (Photo courtesy of the Met Police)

The illegal trade in ivory is to the very much to the forefront of the news just now. That is only one aspect of international wildlife crime that impacts on us in the United Kingdom. Here is part of the chapter on the work of the Metropolitan Wildlife Crime Unit that I wrote for my book The Thin Green Line.


Chiru (Tibetan Antelope)

Most people will never have heard of chiru; if that is the case they are unlikely to have heard of shahtoosh.  The chiru is another name for the Tibetan antelope, the producer of wool so fine that it is worth more than gold. It is unfortunate that the chiru can’t be rounded up and sheared of the fine underbelly part of its fleece once a year like sheep.  It is a totally wild animal so has to be killed in order that this extremely fine wool can be cut off to be woven into shawls so fine that they can be passed through a wedding ring.  The finished ultra-fine material is termed shahtoosh.

Shahtoosh is coveted by the super-rich and means ‘king of wool’ in Persian.  It makes cashmere feel like horsehair. It has become a common currency among crime gangs and terrorist groups, such as the Kashmiri separatists. It is also a key part of a complicated transaction involving tiger bones being smuggled into China, where the smugglers are paid in shahtoosh. Reputedly, as a result of this two-way trade, a tiger is killed in India every day.

So how many £5,000 to £15,000 shawls can be made from the killing of one chiru? None. In fact it takes 100 grams of hair from the soft fleecy stomachs of three chiru to make a single shawl. To bring this despicable trade into a more local context, shahtoosh parties are known to have been held in the UK, with the well-heeled meeting to show off their shawls and to buy the latest designs.  There is a romantic claim that the wool for the shawls is gathered by locals from bushes that the Tibetan antelope have used as scratching posts, all part of an industrious ‘cottage industry.’ In truth bushes are exceptionally scarce in the Tibetan uplands and their presence must be in inverse proportion to the naivety of anyone who believes this fairy tale.

The real villains of the piece are the rich consumers in the developed world. The perceived need for some wealthy people to have an exclusive fashion accessory has meant that the Tibetan antelope numbers have fallen, through full-scale slaughter for its wool, from several million a hundred years ago to less than 75,000 in the early part of the 21 century.

In 2009 poaching continues but at a reduced level and shahtoosh is harder to find in the West.  Chiru numbers in Tibet and Qinghai appear to be increasing slightly.  In a way the chiru is turning into a success story, which shows what can be achieved by range states and consumer nations working together to attack the problem from both ends – poaching in China and consumer demand in the West.

It was against this background that the Metropolitan Police wildlife crime unit, in February 1997, seized 138 shahtoosh shawls worth £353,000 from a London trading company. In April 2000 the company pled guilty and was fined £1,500, which would hardly put them into liquidation.  The fact that the chiru is listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and that shahtoosh is banned from international commercialisation initially did little to prevent attempts at slaughtering the remaining 75,000. In the year 2000 the Chinese authorities confiscated hundreds of chiru pelts and thousands of rounds of poachers’ ammunition.  Unfortunately armed poaching gangs greatly outnumbered the anti-poaching patrol staff and for a time an estimated 20,000 chiru were being killed annually in China.

This first class result by the Metropolitan Police was one of the earlier successes of their innovative ‘Operation Charm,’ a pioneering scheme that has inspired similar operations in a number of other countries.  It was launched in 1995 and is a combination of law enforcement, partnerships and education to deal with the illegal trade of endangered species.  Since its launch Operation Charm has led to the seizure of more than 30,000 items (including in 1996 the world’s largest seizure of rhino horn) as well as the prosecution and conviction of a number of traders.  It has also markedly reduced the number of illegal products openly on sale.  In addition to enforcement, an important aspect of Operation Charm is the development of initiatives to increase public awareness and reduce the demand. The Met, in conjunction with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), has gone on to develop a kit to identify shahtoosh or similar products.  This kit was successfully used in 2004 to identify 90 shahtoosh shawls and 10 shahtoosh scarves from Kashmiri-owned shops in Dubai. 

Traditional Medicines

Operation Charm has continued to yield successes. In May 2002, the Met wildlife crime officers took possession of Traditional Medicines (TMs) from a London business. The 25 seized packets of medicated bandages claimed to contain leopard bone.  This seizure came about by chance. Ian Knox and Andy Fisher from the Met wildlife crime unit had decided to visit a street market in East London which supplies African food and had been found to sell bushmeat.  Having had no success in their search for bushmeat they popped into a small Vietnamese shop nearby to buy some cigarettes.  On the way out they stopped to look in the window where they saw a range of medicines including a number of packets of medicated plasters made from leopard bone. A short time later they returned armed with a search warrant under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species Regulations (COTES) and made the seizure.  When questioned, the shop owners said that whenever they were in Vietnam they always bought these plasters because they knew that people in London were keen to buy them – this supports the team’s view point that it is important to curb consumer demand. There were no other illegal products in the shop so the plasters were seized and the shop owner was cautioned. This offence was at the lower end of the scale but all species of leopard are protected under Appendix 1 of CITES (see Page X) and any commercial trade in their body parts is illegal, with a maximum penalty on indictment of 5 years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

Chinese Traditional Medicine has become extremely popular in the UK today as many people turn to alternative medicines and therapies.  Whilst most are from sustainable sources, some continue to be made from derivatives of animals or plants which are endangered.  Particular favourites are tiger bone, rhinoceros horn and bear bile. This illegal trade is one of the biggest threats facing many endangered species and, like any trade, works on the basis of supply and demand.  Because endangered species are rare there is a limited supply, thus pushing up the prices and providing considerable profits for criminals.

In October 2005 a further search was carried out for TMs on a Chinese medicine supplier in central London. On this occasion several hundred medicinal products, mainly bottled pills, believed to contain endangered species derivatives, were seized by the wildlife crime officers.  The species included tiger, bear, rhinoceros and musk deer.  Some raw plant material was also recovered. This case was lost at court when the judge upheld the defence argument that, in the case of species that are included in more than one of the CITES Appendices (e.g. bears and musk deer) it was necessary for the prosecution to prove which species or geographical population the actual seized product was derived from.  It is virtually impossible to be specific about which geographical population of an animal is involved when all that the product lists as ingredients are bear bile or musk.  The Metropolitan Police Wildlife Crime Unit is working with Defra at present to amend the COTES Regulations to ensure that they can properly be enforced in cases like this. Frustration stalks a high proportion of wildlife crime cases.

Operation Charm’s continued success is linked to their joint work with Trading Standards Officers.  In June 2006, the Met wildlife crime unit executed a search warrant at a Traditional Medicine shop in Deptford, South-east London, where a number of TMs were seized. They then went on to search an outlet in Eltham, where more products were seized and the shop owner was arrested.  The products claimed to contain ingredients derived from protected species including tiger, bear, saiga antelope, musk deer, monkey, seahorse, and rare species of orchid and tree fern. If these species are protected under CITES it is not necessary to prove that the ingredients actually contain the species; simply that they state that they do and that they are being offered for sale. The proprietor later pleaded guilty to 18 charges under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997 and was fined £300 on each charge, a grand total of £5,400.

The Trade in Ivory

The sale of Traditional Medicines is only one of many wildlife crimes taking place in London. Ivory is also in demand. In November 2004, officers from the Unit executed search warrants at three London premises.  Two other premises in Somerset and Gloucestershire were searched simultaneously by the wildlife crime officers from these forces.  In London, 24 ivory items were discovered that were being kept for sale.  Most were shaving brushes stamped ‘real ivory’ and with a retail price of around £1,100 each.  Other ivory items found included an elephant tusk, glove stretchers and hairbrushes. Almost two years later the gentleman’s grooming accessory company implicated pleaded guilty and was fined a total of £10,000, with the ivory items being forfeit. Despite an ivory trade ban, it was estimated by the International Fund for Animal Welfare that 10,000 elephants are still being killed each year for their tusks.  In this case we in Britain are helping to fuel this bloody trade by being willing end users of this illegal trade.

Saiga Antelope

The saiga antelope is found in the Great Lakes basin area of Mongolia, with another sub-species in Russia and Central Asia. It has always been hunted for meat, horns and skin, with tens of thousands being killed each year without dramatically lowering the population.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union a lucrative market for Saiga horn opened up, with hunters using motor cycles and high-powered rifles to chase and kill their quarry. Subsequently the use of saiga horn, exported to China to be used in fever cures as a substitute for rhino horn, received a degree of official support but no-one seemed to foresee the extent of the slaughter.  It is now critically endangered, with the Mongolian sub-species now occupying less than a fifth of its historical range.  It is on the verge of extinction, with biologists stating they have seen the most sudden and dramatic crash of a large mammal ever seen.  From over a million in 1993, fewer than 30,000 remain, mostly females as the males have been decimated for their horns. Now that there is such a scarcity of males it can only be hoped that the animal’s famed fecundity may be sufficient to allow a recovery, in time, to a stable population.

The Fur Trade

In less enlightened times the fur trade was a booming business and fur coats were popular and fashionable.  Now that the fur coat enthusiasts realise that animals have to be killed for their furs, most have given up the idea and prefer to see the animals wearing the coats.  Nevertheless there is a hard core who cast political correctness and conservation concerns aside in the lust for fur.  The problem hasn’t disappeared.  Because of this greed the trade in rare animal skins is still simmering.

In November 2006, after receiving intelligence, the Met Wildlife Crime Unit carried out a search under warrant at a fur dealer’s premises in London. Seven coats made from highly endangered cat species were seized; they were identified by the Natural History Museum as tiger, leopard, snow leopard and ocelot.  The shop owner later pleaded guilty to being involved in their trade and was fined a total of £900, with the coats being forfeit.  After this case, Andy Fisher said, “This case has shown once again that the illegal trade in endangered species is not just something that happens in Asia or Africa.  Endangered species are on sale here on the streets of London and they will be for as long as we continue to buy them.”

It beggars belief, almost a decade in to the environmental enlightenment of the 21st century, that anyone is prepared to walk about swaddled in a tiger skin (or any other rare animal for that matter) thinking that they are indulging in the height of fashion.

In a search of a taxidermist’s premises a year earlier the wildlife crime officers recovered two stuffed tiger cubs, tiny and pathetic victims of the black market trade that exists in London and elsewhere.  There would be little doubt that their mother had also been killed.


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