London Capital of the Rhino Horn Business
Acting on a tip that illegal merchandise was being sold on EBay (EBAY), London police tracked down a seller known as Great Towers. Police traced him to Romford, England, where they raided his home to seize the products—elephant-hair bracelets and ivory.
That was in 2009. Finally, in October last year, the accused, Francis Benyure, was found guilty of trading in endangered animal parts. Benyure received a 10-month suspended sentence, meaning he won’t have to serve any time in jail unless he’s charged with another crime in the next 18 months. He was also ordered to do 150 hours of community service and to pay £500 in costs. Police called it “a long, difficult case to investigate” with help from EBay and London’s Natural History Museum. Efforts to reach Mr. Benyure were unsuccessful.
Such light sentences—and the difficulties of prosecution—are two of the reasons why British police say London is a major hub in the world trade in products made from endangered species, an industry they estimate is worth as much as £12 billion ($19 billion) a year globally. The market extends from Asian customers seeking traditional medicines made from such ingredients as rhinoceros horn and bear bile, to wealthy Britons buying luxury goods such as crocodile skin handbags and coats made from endangered cats. London’s status as a crossroads for world commerce also attracts the trade, says Sergeant Ian Knox, head of the Wildlife Crime Unit at the Metropolitan Police. “It’s one of the largest cities in Europe, with a very cosmopolitan population. All the seizures are made in London. It’s a premier shopping area.”
Knox’s unit has seized Shahtoosh shawls from a Mayfair boutique, valued at £350,000. The shawls are made from Chiru antelopes in Mongolia and Tibet that have been hunted near to extinction for their fur, which is woven into some of the finest shawls in the world. On Jermyn Street in St. James, steps from retailer Fortnum & Mason, the police seized shaving brushes with elephant-ivory handles from a barber shop where a trim costs £32.
Knox wants to reduce the demand and availability for illegal products in London to make it less lucrative for poachers to kill the animals in their home countries. The seized goods are held at a facility in Southeast London. Behind glass doors are Chinese medicine packages and cane handles carved from hippo teeth, some in the shape of ladies’ heads, then stained in tea to give them an antique appearance. There’s a stuffed tiger rented out by a man to ad firms and movie sets. The grown tiger was used in photo shoots for Puma sneakers and the late designer Alexander McQueen, who did not know the animal was hot, says Knox. The owner of the stuffed cat has been charged with trading in endangered species.