February 21, 2010
Revealed: the scale of trade in rare animals
The young man who drove into the car park of the Outlet shopping centre in Banbridge, Co Down, last Friday morning may have looked like a typical shopper, but he was there to sell, not to buy.
Richard Potter, a pet-shop owner who has a lucrative sideline selling rare and endangered species, had arrived to seal his latest deal.
The focus of investigations by law-enforcement agencies in Ireland, Britain and other European countries, Potter had arrived to meet a “client” who had agreed to buy four lemurs, an endangered primate native to the tropical jungles of Madagascar.
Potter, who describes himself as an animal broker, did not suspect that the client, by whom he expected to be paid €6,146, was a Sunday Times journalist. A deposit of €116 had already been paid.
“Here they are,” he said, opening the door of his van. Inside were two dirty pet carriers each containing a pair of rare lemurs that cowered in the darkness.
“I gave you the worst pet carriers I had, as I knew I wouldn’t be getting them back,” said Potter. He refused to reduce his asking price and produced documents that he claimed entitled him to sell the animals.
Before the deal was concluded, Potter was approached by animal-welfare inspectors and members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), who surrounded his van. He did not try to leave, but remained calm. A check of his “paperwork” by the Ulster Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Uspca) revealed that it was irregular, allowing the police to confiscate the lemurs.
Jungle World, a pet shop in Ballymena, Co Antrim, which Potter uses to trade in endangered species, was among the premises raided afterwards. When a search party entered a converted shed at the rear, which Potter calls a “jungle park”, they found another lemur, a young ring-tailed specimen.
The menagerie of exotic creatures astounded officials. A family of pygmy African mongooses was found living in an empty aquarium. A small colony of marmosets screeched when the police came too close. Other cages contained meerkats, spider monkeys, skunks and sugar gliders, tiny marsupials from Indonesia.
Inside a black bin-liner, the search team found a dead Asian short-clawed otter. The animal, which Potter had offered to sell for £1,000 (€1,360) the previous day, had climbed out of its cage and strangled itself on a cable.
Unlike the lemurs, many of the animals found in Potter’s shop are not listed as “endangered”, so the police had no powers to seize them. Instead, Potter will be asked to show where he bought them. If he cannot produce receipts, the menagerie may be seized. If he can produce receipts and prove their origins, he will be free to sell the animals.
How is it that endangered and dangerous wild animals, including species protected by international law, are being sold from the backs of vans to buyers in Northern Ireland and the republic? And is Ireland a destination of choice for unscrupulous animal dealers?
THE scale of the trade in endangered species in Ireland has been uncovered by the Sunday Times, after an investigation in which a reporter posed as an animal collector seeking dangerous and rare wildlife.
It found a secret but vibrant trade in vulnerable species in contravention of international and European legislation.
Potter is known as by far the biggest player in the burgeoning trade. He is among a handful of wildlife dealers who can source some of the world’s rarest creatures from zoos, animal parks and private collectors in Britain, mainland Europe and farther afield.
It is a highly profitable business for Potter, who boasts that he can obtain most species for the right price. Nothing is off-limits.
As he walked between the cages in his “jungle park”, which the public can visit, Potter pointed to a selection of primates that he is selling, among them a pair of large spider monkeys, before discussing the possible sale of an exotic cat.
“We can get anything. I have been offered prides of lions in the past,” said Potter, who let three macaque monkeys out of their concrete cage to run free along the roof of an adjoining building.
“The guys I work with give me commission on the price that you pay,” he said, adding that he could arrange delivery to any location, north or south of the border. The apparent ease with which Potter could source a large cat was impressive. Two days after the first meeting, he sent an email offering a selection of exotic, but dangerous, felines.
“There is an albino tiger at £15,000, a white lion, price unknown, pair of pumas, awaiting price, and some ocelots and servals,” he wrote.
Days later, in another email, he offered to supply a pair of European lynx, a threatened species of large cat that is native to the forests of northern Europe.
He wrote: “Female 08 and male 09. Are in Europe, but you could have them by this weekend. £6,500 delivered. Unbelievable price. Hope you will give this your immediate attention. Many thanks, Richard.”
To proceed, he asked for a 50% deposit upfront and 50% on delivery. In an attempt to secure the sale, he said the purchase of a lynx, which had been sourced from a dealer in Belgium, could be profitable should they produce young in the spring.
“If they breed, you’d be sitting on a small fortune if they had a litter of kittens. You would be able to sell them off, no problem,” he said. Other species offered included a variety of primates, Asian otters and skunks.
So how does a pet shop owner import and sell rare and dangerous creatures like a lynx.
THE trade in endangered wildlife is governed by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
In the European Union, it works by impsoing strict conditions on the trade in creatures that are facing extinction in the wild. The import, export, and sale of all species covered by the convention is regulated through a licensing system that is enforced throughout the EU.
Species that are particularly vulnerable are listed on three appendices, known as Cites I, II and III, according to the level of protection needed.
The two species of lemurs seized from the back of Potter’s van last week, are at the top of the Cites list on its appendix I, as they are endangered, so dealing in wild specimens is banned. But few realise that dealing in captive-bred lemurs, can be permitted if a Cites permit, known as an article 10, is issued.
These allow zoos and animal sanctuaries to sell and exchange captive-bred animals for use in breeding-programmes once they have been registered with a Cites authority, usually a government department in the animal’s country of birth, and implanted with a microchip, the details of which are listed on the specimen’s own article 10 certificate.
Most EU countries pride themselves on the strict enforcement of Cites, but the system is open to abuse. Article 10 permits can be faked, doctored, switched or duplicated.
In Potter’s case, some of the lemurs were found to have no microchip implanted. Some of the article 10 papers that Potter produced when confronted by the police were irregular.
Rob Parry-Jones, the regional director of Traffic Europe, a wildlife trade-monitoring group, said document fraud of this kind was one of the biggest challenges in regulating the wildlife trade.
“Traffic is aware of a number of instances where reptiles have been imported with documentation claiming they were bred in captivity, when in fact they were collected from the wild,” he said.
“In other instances, permits have been used to import specimens legally, but are then copied and used to launder smuggled specimens,” he said.
The number of lemurs and other protected species that Potter has sold is unknown. In one conversation, he admitted to supplying six white-fronted brown lemurs, which are unique to the rainforests of eastern Madagascar, to a collector in Cork and a ring-tailed specimen to another “customer” from the republic.
In Northern Ireland and Britain, the purchase and sale of such animals is governed by the Dangerous Wild Animals (DWA) Act. It was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2004 to stop people keeping dangerous species such as lemurs and lynx in their gardens after several big cats were seized from “private keepers”, but pet shops, zoos and circuses were exempted from the law.
Potter appears to use the exemption afforded to his pet shop to import dangerous creatures and sell them to customers south of the border, no questions asked.
A loophole in the law permits him to register dangerous animals in his own name, but sell them on without having to alert the authorities. “It’s all above board,” he said.
When he offered to supply the Sunday Times with a lynx, he offered to register the animal in his own name with the Belgian authorities if they asked for details of the person buying the cat.
“No one would know that you have it, just me, you and the wall,” he said.
As there is no legislation in the republic, the owners of dangerous or protected species are not required to register them with any authority.
Stephen Philpott, the Uspca’s chief executive, said the exemption afforded to Potter made a “mockery” of laws designed to protect the public from dangerous animals.
“The DWA exemption to pet shops is best described as a joke,” he said. “This man is importing all types of dangerous animals and endangered species and selling them to the highest bidder, particularly to people in the republic, where it’s legal to keep a tiger in your back garden.”
Will Travers, the chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, which campaigns against the trade in wildlife, said exotic animals required special care, as such creatures retained all the necessary “aggression, fear and behavioural characteristics” that would allow them, potentially, to exist in the wild.
“Many of these animals have extremely complex environmental and social needs that are impossible to meet in a private or domestic environment. Without a complex physical environment, the welfare of these animals is always compromised,” he said.
Potter’s activities are now the subject of a full investigation by the police, the Uspca and Cites enforcement agencies in Europe.
Yesterday, the Uspca and police continued to search for a number of lemurs which they suspect are in the hands of unlicensed keepers in Northern Ireland.
The whereabouts of lemurs and other animals sold to collectors from the republic are likely to become the focus of investigation in the coming weeks.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org