Tortoises, geckos and chameleon seized as UK police target smugglers

Tortoises, geckos and chameleon seized as UK police target smugglers

Hundreds of live animals were among items seized by UK Border Force officers in a crackdown to tackle the “illegal and barbaric” trade in endangered species and plants.

They included 400 live tortoises, 10,000 sea horses, 166 rare geckos, scorpions found in postal packages and a chameleon found in a handbag.

Other items found in the six-week operation included 11 black bear claws, 23 rare orchids and cactuses, a snake handbag and 57 ivory products.

Grant Miller, the head of the Border Force’s endangered species team, said Heathrow Airport was an important transit hub for criminal gangs and smugglers of products made from endangered animals, including ivory from critically at-risk rhinos in Africa.

Recent seizures also included a batch of ivory poached from elephants in Ghana which was en route to China.

Dozens of items were seized in an operation at a Royal Mail sorting office in Slough which handles packages flown into Heathrow.

They included rare insects, endangered orchids, rare butterflies, health products containing endangered plants and a dead chameleon contained in formaldehyde.

More than 300 different animals and plants were seized by the Border Force and police at UK airports and ports, as they worked together for “Operation Cobra 3” which has resulted in 28 police investigations.

Mr Miller said health products containing endangered plant extracts were a booming trade in Britain, with the supplements being imported from the United States and the Far East.

Rich Britons are also in the market for rare reptiles and exotic plants such as endangered orchids, he said, adding: “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, legal and illegal. Because of where we are, we are a logistical hub and things move through us.

“It’s a fight — every single day we find something different. We’ve had tortoises in cigarette packets, poisonous snakes in parcels in the post, and insects and scorpions.”

Detectives from the National Wildlife Crime Unit said animals such as macaque monkeys were being killed in the wild to fuel a demand in the West — including Britain — for collectors of animal skulls.

Chief Inspector Martin Sims, from the unit, said its 300 seizures were “just a snapshot” of the illegal wildlife trade. Latest figures show seizures of endangered species in the UK rose to 690 in 2012/13 compared to 516 the previous year.