Mon, Oct 04, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Animal smugglers keep airport inspectors busy


The deep blue hyacinth macaw is the largest bird of the parrot family. Each one can grow to around a meter long, and they are natives of the rainforests of central and south America.

But these ones are not swooping over the Amazon. Instead, they are sitting on a piece of rope in a Heathrow warehouse, surrounded by a dozen concrete-lined cages that house an array of animals from dogs to black scorpions.

The birds have been at the airport's animal reception center for a few years, having been confiscated several years ago from a smuggler who was trying to bring them into the UK. They are listed under CITES and the smuggler has just been given a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for his crime.

Charles MacKay is the manager of the UK's Customs CITES team at London-Heathrow airport. He is one of the scores of people around the world whose job it is to catch the smugglers and enforce the strict treaties. For more than a decade, MacKay has been at the front line in Britain and now leads a team of experts who help to identify endangered animals and plants in shipments and to police the permitted trade.

Mostly, MacKay's team deals with legal shipments of not just live animals but caviar and skins.

But even legal shipments can get into trouble, due to CITES' strict conditions. "Things have to be black and white," MacKay says.

"If you have grey areas you have problems," he says.

Because animals that are poorly looked after could suffer or die during transport, they must be packed according to strict guidelines governing, for example, how much space each animal gets in its cage. Where those conditions are breached, even legal shipments with valid permits will be seized. And if the permit is even one day out of date, the shipment is deemed illegal.

But the permits are difficult to get, so MacKay's team has to deal with smugglers too. He cites a man who wanted to smuggle rare birds' eggs to New Zealand. The smuggler was caught when he tried to board a plane wearing a customized vest to carry the eggs, which were carefully contained in layers of foam and cotton wool and stuffed into plastic tubing.

Smugglers are often caught using implausible excuses. Customs officers once intercepted two cheetahs the importers claimed were destined for a breeding program. They didn't have a valid license, but the CITES team spotted a more obvious problem.

"They were both male," MacKay says.

There are also unwitting smugglers -- people on holiday in exotic places who want to bring home unusual souvenirs. MacKay's office has shelves of snakes and lizards squashed into bottles of alcohol.

"Some are drinks, some are rubs," MacKay says. "You wouldn't want to mix the two."

One bottle has a cobra-like snake sitting inside a murky brown liquid. The label says that "snake whisky" is a speciality of Laos that can cure rheumatism, lumbago and something ominously called "sweat of limbs". But these oddities are just a taste of the animal derivatives. A windowless room stores bags of illegal furs of unidentifiable animals, crocodile-skin handbags (with head still attached, of course), snakeskin shoes and a series of books covered in thick, grey elephant hide on how to hunt these giant beasts.

These derivatives are regularly pressed into service to demonstrate the scale of trafficking to members of the public. The leather bags and illegal elephant tusks are often given to museums or exhibitions. Working out what to do with the live animals is more tricky.

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