UK Establishes Multi-agency Wildlife Crime Unit
Putting aside the obvious question: "How much fun is a rare egg collection anyhow?" the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reports that in 2004 there were 62 incidents of illegal egg stealing in the UK, including confirmed cases of egg removal from the nests of protected species. And this is just one of the variety of acts which threaten species diversity (see the first comment at New Bird Species if you have doubts). For this reason, the National Wildlife Crime Unit has been inaugurated in Edinburgh and will ensure that police have the support of customs officers and wildlife experts in tracking down illegal traders in endangered species. The UK biodiversity minister, Barry Gardiner, is quoted in BBC news saying wildlife crime is "organised criminal gangs, it's wholesale criminal organisations in the same way that we talk about people trafficking, the same way that we talk about drug trafficking." But in an indication that the new unit is having a hard time getting itself taken seriously, Minister Gardiner declaims that it is not about saving "fluffy bunny rabbits". So how serious is it? The worldwide illegal trade in animals, skins and trophies is estimated to lie between £2bn-£6bn (US$3.8bn - 11.2bn). UK customs officers have seized almost 8,000 live creatures being smuggled into Britain over the past three years.
The unit was announced at Edinburgh's Dynamic Earth. It will be hosted by Lothian and Borders Police, who will collect and analyze wildlife crime information and coordinate a multi-agency response. Again quoted in BBC news, Gardiner explains: "We are talking about people who think it is acceptable to kill endangered animals because their fur is a fashion statement, or steal a rare bird's egg because it's one that they don't yet have in their collection, or root out a threatened plant because they know it will fetch a fortune on the black market," he said.
In spite of the international crime angle, further information suggests that the unit will also focus on protecting species at home from attacks by individuals, including poisoning, shooting or destroying the nests of protected birds. Although new species may still be discovered occasionally, many of our familiar and beloved species are disappearing, including lesser spotted woodpeckers, willow tits, hawfinches, tree pipits, redstarts, wood warblers. The red-backed shrike, wryneck and Savi's warbler have "virtually disappeared from the UK in recent decades" according to RSPB.
The UK National Wildlife Crime Unit follow on from a pilot started in 2002 within the National Criminal Intelligence Service. The pilot effort was implemented with the support of Defra, the Scottish Executive, the Association of Chief Police Officers, HM Revenue and Customs and the Home Office. We wish them luck with the efforts going forward.