UK police target rhino horn and ivory traffic

An online antiques dealer was today fined NZ$12,000 (£6,300) by a New Zealand court for illegally trading in ivory. Jiezhen Jiang was caught after customs officers intercepted two parcels containing ivory in the mail. Other ivory artefacts were found at his home, and the court heard that Jiang had been buying and reselling objects online, in some cases to China.

BCT01 Wildlife crime display, National Wildlife Crime Unit

Wildlife crime display: National Wildlife Crime Unit

It’s a good result for the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, which was involved in the initial investigation of a Cheltenham antiques dealer, Alex Maw, who illegally sold ivory ornaments on eBay. It was intelligence gathered in that case which led to the Jiang investigation and simultaneous police raids in New Zealand and Cheltenham. Maw was subsequently convicted in a British court for illegal ivory trading.

The UK is a far cry from the African bush, where elephant and rhino poaching to fuel the trade in ivory and horn threatens to spiral out of control, or, indeed, the Far East where illegally traded horn and ivory is mainly consumed. But on our visit to the headquarters of the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) in Scotland last month we discovered that this illegal trade is a lot closer to home than you might think.

‘We kick-started this international investigation,’ police inspector Nevin Hunter, who heads the NWCU, told us. ‘Ours was the golden bullet that gave the New Zealand police the opportunity to go in.’

The unit collects and analyses intelligence on wildlife crime and provides operational support to police forces throughout the UK. Trade in endangered species is one of its main targets, with rhino horn and ivory currently topping the list of priorities.

‘Four years ago rhinos were not a priority, but then we started to pick up a trend in people looking to export rhino horn out of the UK,’ he explained. At that time rhino horn export was legal as long as people went through the correct process and could show the provenance of the horn. ‘We were getting three or four applications to export rhino horn a year. What we spotted over a year and a half was that numbers went up to seven or eight, then nine or 10, then 17 or 18. It mirrored the exponential rise in poaching in South Africa.’

AMHRW222 White rhino

Police identified a rising number of rhino horn auction sales

‘We discovered that rhino horn was increasingly being offered for sale in auction houses. Auction houses were going out looking for horn because of the amount of money they were making. We were seeing adverts going into the provincial press: ‘Have you got a rhino horn for sale?’ There was a huge incentive for them. An auction house that might usually make five or 10 thousand pounds in a sale could sell an £80,000 rhino horn in two minutes on the floor and make 27 per cent off that in buyer’s and sellers’ commission.’

‘We went to one particular auction house where eight or ten horns were being sold. We were interested in whether the horns were going to be sold on the basis of the antiquity or provenance alone or were they getting sold on the basis of weight. We saw that they were all offered for sale on the basis of their weight. A four kilo horn went for 30 grand, a six kilo horn for 80 grand. It became clear that horns were being traded for the horn value.’

It was the concern that this legal trade in rhino horn could be driving up prices and thereby fuelling the poaching of wild rhinos, that subsequently led the UK government to tighten restrictions on sales, which are now permitted only in very limited circumstances such as between reputable international museums. A number of other European countries have followed suit.

While auction houses were selling rhino horn legally, it was clear to Nevin Hunter that a criminal trade was also going on. ‘If there’s a legal trade going on, which there was, you can bet your bottom dollar that there’s illegal trade going on,’ he says. ‘If 50 rhino horns were being sold legally in auction houses in a year, and only 16 or 17 export licences were being applied for, where was the other horn going? Our suspicions were that it was being illegally exported.’

The unit has dealt with two cases involving illegal horn trade in the past year: a Chinese man in Cardiff who was successfully prosecuted for making a false application to try to export a horn, and an ongoing case involving someone attempting to sell parts of a rhino horn to traditional medicines shops.

‘Illegal exports of horn from the UK remain a priority issue,’ Nevin Hunter told us. ‘We’ve got to be alive to the fact that the EU is the world’s major marketplace. We’ve got all the ex-colonial countries, France, Germany, Belgium, Britain, the colonial powers that dominated in Africa and went and shot everything. We’ve got massive stockpiles of horns, and a huge part to play in potentially driving up prices. We don’t actually know how many horns there are in the UK, but we think maybe 500 to 600 horns of dead and living animals, maybe more.’

We’ll be reporting further on the work of the NWCU in future blogs.

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