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Acting on a tip that illegal merchandise was being sold on EBay (EBAY), London police tracked down a seller known as Great Towers. Police traced him to Romford, England, where they raided his home to seize the products—elephant-hair bracelets and ivory.
That was in 2009. Finally, in October last year, the accused, Francis Benyure, was found guilty of trading in endangered animal parts. Benyure received a 10-month suspended sentence, meaning he won’t have to serve any time in jail unless he’s charged with another crime in the next 18 months. He was also ordered to do 150 hours of community service and to pay £500 in costs. Police called it “a long, difficult case to investigate” with help from EBay and London’s Natural History Museum. Efforts to reach Mr. Benyure were unsuccessful.
Such light sentences—and the difficulties of prosecution—are two of the reasons why British police say London is a major hub in the world trade in products made from endangered species, an industry they estimate is worth as much as £12 billion ($19 billion) a year globally. The market extends from Asian customers seeking traditional medicines made from such ingredients as rhinoceros horn and bear bile, to wealthy Britons buying luxury goods such as crocodile skin handbags and coats made from endangered cats. London’s status as a crossroads for world commerce also attracts the trade, says Sergeant Ian Knox, head of the Wildlife Crime Unit at the Metropolitan Police. “It’s one of the largest cities in Europe, with a very cosmopolitan population. All the seizures are made in London. It’s a premier shopping area.”
Knox’s unit has seized Shahtoosh shawls from a Mayfair boutique, valued at £350,000. The shawls are made from Chiru antelopes in Mongolia and Tibet that have been hunted near to extinction for their fur, which is woven into some of the finest shawls in the world. On Jermyn Street in St. James, steps from retailer Fortnum & Mason, the police seized shaving brushes with elephant-ivory handles from a barber shop where a trim costs £32.
Knox wants to reduce the demand and availability for illegal products in London to make it less lucrative for poachers to kill the animals in their home countries. The seized goods are held at a facility in Southeast London. Behind glass doors are Chinese medicine packages and cane handles carved from hippo teeth, some in the shape of ladies’ heads, then stained in tea to give them an antique appearance. There’s a stuffed tiger rented out by a man to ad firms and movie sets. The grown tiger was used in photo shoots for Puma sneakers and the late designer Alexander McQueen, who did not know the animal was hot, says Knox. The owner of the stuffed cat has been charged with trading in endangered species.
The problem, says Neil D’Cruze, who runs a campaign for the World Society for the Protection of Animals to crack down on the global trade, isn’t just that there’s a demand for the products but that the penalties aren’t strict enough. It’s easier to smuggle animal products into the country than drugs or weapons, and the chances of prosecution or jail time are slim, he says.
It’s a lucrative business. Rhino horns sell for around £60,000 per kilogram, twice the value of gold, according to the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiques unit, which is investigating the theft of rhino horns from museums and auction houses in the U.K. and Europe. Knox points to three sitting on the shelf at the storage facility. The largest weighed 2.6 kilograms, he says. “That’s about £250,000 altogether. That’s a big incentive for criminals. And that’s what you’d pay for it in the U.K. In the Far East, treble that.”
The wildlife crime unit, created informally in 1995, was at first staffed by officers willing to work on cases in their free time. Knox, a beat sergeant in East London, volunteered, then eventually started working full-time for the unit.
The police initially focused on ingredients in Chinese medicine shops, bringing along an interpreter on raids, Knox says. They learned the Chinese names of the most common types of medicine that contained tiger bone, bear bile, rhino horn, and other animal parts. The WSPA is monitoring an influx in libation cups, used to pour liquid as an offering to the gods in memory of the dead. Many libation cups made from rhino horn were popular in ancient China. The WSPA is concerned that new ones are being marketed as antiques.
The WSPA is now lobbying the government for more resources for the unit and harsher penalties, says Simon Pope, WSPA’s U.K. head of external affairs. After all, he adds, “We’re a nation of animal lovers.”
The bottom line: The global trade in endangered species products is worth an estimated $19 billion annually, and London is the center of the action.