20 July 2012

DEFRA Responds - Report

By Tony Jones

A worldwide operation co-ordinated by INTERPOL called 'Operation Ramp' saw UK reptile trade visited and inspected in a crackdown on international trade in illegal tortoises. Following a two-month-long investigation into the UK tortoise trade, PBW reporter Tony Jones speaks to Nevin Hunter, Head of Compliance at Animal Health:

PBW - Can you give an overview of Operation Ramp and its findings.

Nevin Hunter - Operation RAMP was co-ordinated by the Cites Priority Delivery Group, during September and October 2010 as part of a global focus on illegal reptile trade by INTERPOL.

The United Kingdom Border Agency looked at 64 shipments containing 41,000 reptiles and recorded a small number of offences relating to underpayment of revenue.

The internal reptile trade saw a greater focus with visits being made to over 500 importers, wholesales, retailers and expo premises, focussing specifically on the trade in tortoises. Police used local knowledge of the area and internet searches to determine which premises were likely to be trading in tortoises and therefore warranted visits.

Inspections found that:

  • Approximately 1/3 were not trading in tortoises at that time
  • Approximately 1/3 were trading Annex B species only and so were not subject to further investigation
  • Approximately 1/3 were trading Annex A species

Further investigation found that 60% of those trading Annex A species were committing some kind of offence. These offences ranged from small scale administrative errors up to more serious offences, such as large scale trade in illegal pet tortoises and occasional trade in high-value species. Police and officers from the National Wildlife Crime Unit are currently processing these offences to determine the best course of action and conclusions are expected to be reached by spring 2011.

PBW - Some traders complained that the inspections were 'heavy handed' with up to a dozen uniformed officials arriving to inspect small premises and small numbers of animals. Could you explain why this approach was necessary?

Nevin Hunter - I can't comment on the specific nature of each visit as these were co-ordinated from the local constabulary and conducted in whatever manner they deemed appropriate. I am not aware that Police forces have received any official complaints about the visits. I do know that the vast majority of the visits were conducted in a low-key manner with just one or two persons per visit.

PBW - Several traders and industry experts have stated that the rules regarding Annex A species CITES administration are ambiguous and that they have been changed several times in recent years without notification or consultation with the trade.

Nevin Hunter - The rules regarding trade in Annex A species are quite clear and this is backed up by the fact that 40% of the premises commercially using Annex A species that we visited were fully compliant. We liaise closely with the Pet Care Trust and I am confident that the relevant information is available to traders. Full and clear details of the relevant legislation can be found on the Animal Health Website and a good summary was produced in the September issue of this magazine. We are always looking to improve customer satisfaction and ensure that guidance is clear and unambiguous. If customers have concerns about this they should let us know. We are always pleased to receive feedback.

PBW - Some traders believe it is necessary to photocopy CITES paperwork after an Annex A tortoise is sold to an end user customer. Can you clear this up for us?

Nevin Hunter - There is no standard requirement for traders to photocopy CITES certificates, however we have suggested that it may assist a new owner intending to use a tortoise for commercial purposes to be supplied with a photocopy of the original certificate, or number of it in to refer to in order to make their own Article 10 application. I have recently discussed this issue with Chris Newman and understand that this suggestion may caused confusion or concern. We have only suggested this to try and assist, there being no legal requirement to provide a photocopy. If this is felt to be confusing or causing concern then we are happy to reconsider this.

Annex A for commercial use

"It is important that Annex A species are not offered commercially, such as for sale or display for sale until CITES paperwork has been processed to show the name of the current trader. The vast majority of 'name change' replacement certificates are processed within 15 days. – Nevin Hunter, Animal Health Compliance.

PBW - Do you think that the resources and manpower used for the inspections was proportionate and do you think the inspections achieved their aim?

Nevin Hunter - Our aim is to catch people breaking the law if they fail to comply with legal requirements, but just as importantly we have a duty to reassure those traders who are making the effort to be compliant that we are supporting them. We used the powers that we have at our disposal to ensure we did just that. Many of the traders we spokento during the operation were reassured that we are working to ensure that Wildlife Crime laws are being upheld.

PBW - Numerous traders and industry experts say that complex administration processes and poor communication from Animal Health has caused significant and unnecessary problems when trading CITES species. Can traders expect to see any changes as result of your findings during Operation Ramp?

Nevin Hunter - We intend to meet with traders sometime in the spring 2011 with a full report of our findings aiming to raise awareness and compliance concerning the issues we have found regarding Annex A tortoises. We are currently also discussing within a European context with other Member States whether changing the format of the CITES certificates for Annex A species to make the different types of certificates more identifiable would be beneficial, but no decision has yet been made.

Recent prosecutions

Name: David Johnson
Company: Exotic Pets 4 U Ltd
Sentence: 8 Months imprisonment and 3 year ban from trading Annex A species

Name: Robert Struthers
Company: Carlisle Tortoises
Sentence: 24 Weeks suspended sentence. 250 hours unpaid community work. £1200 fine.

Responses from the Pet Trade

Feedback from the trade about Operation Ramp has been less than favourable. Chris Newman from REPTA (Reptile Exotic Pet Trade Association) has followed the situation closely. We asked Chris for a statement:

"Operation Ramp in the UK has been costly and ineffective and only serves to highlight the shortcomings of DEFRA and Animal Health over the past five years. Had the rules regarding Appendix A species been clearly and effectively communicated to the pet trade then these inspections would have been entirely pointless. Statistics show that the UK sees almost zero incidents of reptile smuggling and similarly minute levels of actual illegal trade. We challenge Animal Health to present evidence of any significant illegal trade beyond the challenging and ever changing administrative processes imposed upon UK traders.

"Any instances where traders have been compliant with Appendix A administration have been despite and not because of, Animal Health's work. We have discovered innumerable examples of poor operational practices by Animal Health. We would be delighted to share these findings. Once again, we invite Animal Health to meet with representatives from the trade with a view to developing a more efficient and effective system."

Both the National Wildlife Crime Unit and DEFRA/Animal Health have repeatedly declined to meet with representatives from the trade.

Conflicting advice

These standard issue letters were sent to the same trader within a few weeks of each other. Clearly contradicting the advice given above one letter advises they should photocopy certificates whilst another makes no mention of it. Traders have previously been prosecuted for photocopying CITES certificates.

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