Down at the "Dead Shed"
The illegal wildlife trade is hugely linked with how easy it is to transport goods between countries, by land, sea or air. Any wildlife trade is under the control of international organisation, known as CITES; not all of it is illegal, but there are strict rules on what you can and can’t move into another country. So how do you catch what’s allowed and what isn’t. Georgia Mills went to Heathrow airport in London to visit Grant Miller, from border force and head of the National CITES enforcement team. They took a look in the so-called “Dead Shed”, a room full of all the illegal natural products people have been apprehended with at Heathrow. Some people may find this content upsetting...
Grant - You’ve got your timbers there. Elephant products, skulls, taxidermy. Your reptile skins; snakes. Medicinals: so from your traditional Chinese medicinals through to the New Age health supplements that we now get. And then a growing trade for us is the retro coats, so all the fur coats, etc, that used to come up.
Georgia - Is that a polar bear there, and a tiger?
Grant - It is a polar bear; that came in from Norway about 18 months ago. Then we have a piece of Indian red sandalwood. Two tons of this was smuggled through Heathrow airport wrapped up in…
Georgia - Two tons; sorry?
Grant - Two tons.
Georgia - Through an airport?
Grant - Through an airport in our freight facilities, wrapped in carpets - that was the smuggle. Moving through to ivory; the whole elephant is protected not just the tusks so what we do pick up is everything from elephant hide - that’s the skin of an elephant that’s been tanned and cured. And again, what they’ll do with that is they’ll make it into shoes. There’s a briefcase made from one. The tail hair made into a bracelet. A piece of handicraft bracelet. Then we have the ivory itself. Items that are being traded are statues, we have shaving brushes. We’ve got works of are, a little ball there that you can’t deny it’s a beautiful thing, it’s just the product is no longer acceptable for many, many people.
Georgia - Is that a monkey head as well?
Grant - That is a monkey head. Again, this was from a fairly recent conviction, and what we see with primate parts is that these are byproducts of the illegal bushmeat trade. So the hands, the skulls…
Georgia - Oh, that’s grim. That’s a necklace with a monkey skull on the end.
Grant - It is indeed. A crab eating macaque monkey skull, we believe, are traded and they are sold on online auction houses as gothic art. Holiday souvenirs - still a problem. The UK population still hasn’t got the message that it’s not acceptable to go abroad and bring back a stuffed sea turtle.
...Other products we’ve got: this is bear bile.
Georgia - Bear bile?
Grant - Bear bile. Again, the bear is held in horrendous conditions. A sealed cage invariably, a tap is inserted into the gallbladder and then the bile is drawn off. The bear can’t really move about: they go blind; they suffer from mental health issues; it’s tortuous. Vietnam at the moment is doing some fantastic work in actually trying to combat it’s bear bile trade. Again, a lot of the state’s provinces in Vietnam are incredibly proud now that can say we are bear bile farm free. A long way still to go; there’s a lot more work to be done but there is progress.
Georgia - Looking at this, what I’m quite blown away by - it’s quite a horrific stash - but there’s the things you always associate with wildlife trade. There’s the ivory horns and enormous bear skins but then there’s a lot of stuff here that I wouldn’t look twice at, so I guess it just shows how easy it would be to be complicit in this kind of thing if you’re not aware of what you might be buying and moving?
Grant - Absolutely. A tiger skin you would hope most people would be aware of. There are 33,000 species listed on CITES which are requiring our protection. The largest percentage of those are plant based. The best advice for your listeners is if you’re not sure, as the question before you buy it. If you move it over an international border and you don’t have the correct paperwork, you are committing an offence.
Now, in the United Kingdom, on conviction that could lead to a sentence of up to seven years and an unlimited fine. The largest sentence we’ve had historically is 6½ years so the potential for prosecution for yourself, to find yourself in real difficulty is there. My team; we make about 1,200 wildlife seizures annually, within that we will probably seize 1,000 endangered animals.
When border force seize and animal it becomes Crown property so the Queen has no idea the animals that she actually owns, but we have large amounts of those rehomed in zoos, both in the UK, but globally as well.
Georgia - So how do Grant and his team catch the illegal stuff coming through? Apart from studying who is flying in from where, and targeting flights from countries with species of interest, a big part of it is looking out for something that just doesn’t seem quite right…
Grant - What we have stuffed here is a dwarf Nile crocodile; one of the most endangered crocs in the world. We had six of these that were smuggled in through Heathrow Airport in transit to Korea. They came out of Benin and declared them as Mississippi alligators, so the common ones you would see in Florida and Louisiana, etc. That made us immediately suspicious because the last time we looked in Benin in Africa there wasn’t a population of these.
We had these six and we went out with our colleagues from the City of London Corporation and identified immediately that these were actually Nile crocodiles. Within 24 hours, we had lost two of these crocodiles - they died.
Georgia - Oh, the came in live?
Grant - They came in live, yeah, yeah, absolutely. What we found was that they had left the fishing hooks in the crocodiles so these were wild taken crocs. Bit of chicken on the end of your rope, throw your hook in, took it, and all they had done is cut the rope off. Again, working with expert vets in the UK, we were able to save the other four.
This is a rhino horn. It was smuggled in a plaster cast that was painted as a Spanish lady. If you look in the back there the little red and blue, that’s part of the cast that this was encompassed in.
Georgia - So they hid inside a model?
Grant - They did: inside a model. It was in in freight, that’s where we picked it up. The first question our officers questioned was why would you want to ship that plaster cast around the world because it’s like a child’s statue. Badly painted; not very good. So we X-rayed it and then, clearly, the rhino horn showed up within it. We broke it open and we found it.
Now, as well our targeting, we also have a couple of friends that help us. We have two wildlife detector dogs within the UK who have the ability to go out on a daily basis and detect wildlife products. Dogs have been really successful; they can pick up on ivory, rhino horn, furs, feathers, live tortoises, reptiles. We’re training them on corals at the moment and they’re deployed fairly effectively within the UK on a daily basis.