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An interview with Andy Fisher, head of the Met Police wildlife crime investigation unit

Fur coats seized in London. © David Flint.
What illegal products are most in demand in London?
At present, the things we find most often are traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products made from endangered species. Many western consumers see TCM as a trendy alternative to conventional medicines and, because of this, the trade in the UK has grown enormously in the last ten years or so. Most of the trade is legal and uses sustainable herbal remedies but there is a continuing trade in products made from animals like tiger, rhino, bear, leopard, Musk deer, Saiga antelope and some endangered plants. Obviously, this is the aspect of the trade that we are trying to stop.

In fact, it’s not really correct to say that we have an endangered species trade in London because we have a number of different trades. In addition to medicines, a wide range of other items are illegally sold here from ornaments and fashion items to skins, food and live animals.

I hear quotes that trade in illegal wildlife products is second only to the trade in drugs. Is this true?
I hear those quotes too but I think the truth is that nobody really knows. Clearly, the international illegal wildlife trade is on a large scale and the items traded are often highly priced but, of course, it will only ever be possible to estimate the scale and value.

In 2005, the US State department estimated the value of the worldwide illegal trade to be $US10 billion per year but, as I say, it’s impossible to put a precise figure on it.

Are you a wildlife enthusiast or did you get the short straw?
Definitely a wildlife enthusiast. I think most Police Wildlife Crime Officers do this through choice because they think it is important and because they have specialist knowledge or skills that they bring to the work.

Most Wildlife Crime Officers undertake this role in addition to their other policing duties so most probably wouldn’t do it unless they cared about it. In my case, I have been interested in wildlife for as long as I can remember and I still take every opportunity that I can to get out into the countryside to watch and try to photograph wildlife.
Does the internet play a big part in the trade?
Yes, increasingly so. The internet provides an easy means of buying and selling anything and wildlife is included.

How do antique dealers sell ivory? Do they need a permit?
Any item made from a species on the CITES endangered species list can be classified as an antique if it can be shown to pre-date 1 June 1947. However, the law puts the onus on the seller, if asked, to provide some evidence of this and, if they are unable to do so, then they cannot sell the item unless they can obtain an Article 10 permit from DEFRA.

The law also draws a distinction between ‘worked’ and ‘unworked’ items. A worked item is something that has been significantly altered from its original state, whereas an unworked item would be a raw material which could still be worked. A worked item could be an ivory carving, for instance, and in this case, it could be sold as an antique, without a permit, if it was shown to be old enough. Most ivory on sale in the UK today will probably fall into this category.
An unworked item, such as a raw elephant tusk, cannot be sold without a DEFRA permit, however old it is.

Are all of the products you deal with from overseas or is UK wildlife preyed on as well?
In London, the work that we do under Operation Charm against the illegal trade in endangered species is our biggest task but we are involved in all aspects of wildlife crime.

The capital has more protected species than most people realise and we deal with a wide range of offences from trapping of songbirds to illegal disturbance to badgers and other protected species, and illegal poisoning of wildlife, particularly foxes. We are also responsible for ensuring the security of London’s Peregrine Falcon nest sites and, in addition, we deal with offences committed by Londoners elsewhere in the UK. This includes bird’s egg collecting and hare coursing, for instance.

What one single action would help you the most?
I don’t know what single action would do it but we need a much greater recognition of wildlife crime as a serious issue both amongst the public and the police service. Wildlife crime destroys species, funds professional criminals and is responsible for the loss of many human lives. Although much of this happens in other countries, we share the responsibility for it because it is often consumer demand in countries like ours which provides the money that drives it all. Forest guards are killed by poachers because they try to stop them. If the animals that they are protecting are in demand in our country, who is responsible?

So wildlife crime is serious, yet all too often it has the image of a ‘soft’ subject which can be treated as an optional extra and of little real importance to people’s lives.

If I could change this perception it would mean that more crimes would be reported to the police and there would be less consumer demand for endangered species products. Everybody understands that there are many demands placed upon the police and nobody expects wildlife crime to be a top policing priority in the UK but in forces all over the country Wildlife Crime Officers are proving that they give a lot for a very modest commitment in terms of resources.

Wildlife Extra promotes responsible tourism as a means of conservation. However, not all holiday companies, or tourists are responsible. Do you have any jurisdiction over UK companies behaving irresponsibly overseas?
We can’t enforce the law in other countries but we can pass on information to enforcement agencies abroad and can, of course, give advice to a UK company who might be seen to be encouraging their clients to buy endangered species products while on holiday.

Anybody attempting to bring anything made from an endangered species into the EU without the appropriate permit is committing an offence and they can expect customs officers to seize the item and possibly prosecute. I would like to see travel companies make this clear to travellers before they leave the UK.

Click CHARM to read more about the campaign against wildlife crime in London