Eagles, eels and a suitcase of iguanas: tales from the front line against wildlife trafficking

Downy eagle chicks
Baby African hawk eagles, discovered as eggs strapped to a smuggler’s body at Heathrow

Border Force’s CITES team tackles the illegal trade in endangered plants and animals. Here, Senior Officer Grant Miller recalls some of the Heathrow-based team’s most memorable moments – and the rare creatures they have rescued.

What has been your best moment in the job?

Bahamian rock iguana on beach
Critically endangered: A San Salvador rock iguana similar to the 13 found at Heathrow

For me, it has to be the seizure and repatriation of 13 San Salvador rock iguanas to the Bahamas. These reptiles are some of the most endangered animals I have ever seen.

The subspecies we had were White Cay iguanas. There are about 150 of these left in the wild and none in captivity.

They were found in a suitcase in Terminal 5, being brought from Nassau with the intention of transiting on to Hannover. The two Romanian couriers had been paid to travel to the Bahamas and bring these reptiles to Europe.

The big success story here was that through working with the Bahamian Consulate, the Heathrow Animal Reception Centre (ARC) and British Airways, two of my officers were able to take the iguanas back to their island home. They have been released back into the wild and become re-established as a viable population.

What does a typical day look like?

Hatchlings wrappped in tiny towels
Tiny towels for two rescued hatchlings

I am afraid it’s that old cliché – no two days are ever the same. The bad days are when you get caught behind your computer screen. The good days can be examining a reptile or coral shipment at the ARC.

The team are intelligence-led, so as well as examining suspicious shipments ourselves, we will also respond to items found by uniformed officers in the Customs channels or freight areas, along with calls from Heathrow security staff finding things during screening. It truly is a team effort.

The team has both a Heathrow and a national role that can see members called out to any port or airport in the UK. And, more and more, we are called upon to deliver international training and support.

Recently we have deployed to Malawi, Chile, Mexico, Malaysia and Singapore. Working internationally is incredibly rewarding. We learn as much as we teach – not only about risk in our work area but also about other cultures.

By providing this fundamental training upstream we are helping to protect endangered species at the earliest opportunity, before they get to the UK.

The team does have one rule when you travel abroad: you must return with a snowglobe for the office. To date we have around 150!

What makes the officers in the team different to other Border Force roles?

The team are Border Force Higher Officers who have worked in the terminals and in freight and can do the primary functions. They have been able to specialise in this field and are trained to handle wildlife in a safe manner and identify products.

Each officer has their own speciality. These can include antiques, birds of prey, orchids, traditional medicines, mammals, aquatic species and reptiles. They are all passionate about the work and recognise that protecting our environment will protect our species.

We lose an elephant every 15 minutes to poaching, a rhino every seven hours and an area the size of 36 football pitches to illegal logging every minute. We often have to protect society from dangers it does not recognise as we secure the UK Border.

What kind of impact is the team having at Heathrow?

Grant Miller with seized tiger and polar bear skins
‘Dangers society doesn’t recognise’: Grant Miller with seized animal skins

Some of our biggest cases have happened at Heathrow over the years, from ivory smuggled into the terminal to seizing shipments of endangered Indian red sandalwood logs in courier traffic. Border Force seizes over 1,000 shipments nationally every year.

Key work going forward is building a community at Heathrow that will say no to the illegal wildlife trade. Working in partnership with the Heathrow sustainability unit and the Royal Foundation, a Heathrow IWT forum has been established where partners from across the business community come together to work on driving this horrific trade from our airport.

Joint operations coordinated by our team have forged close relationships with outside stakeholders including the police and Environment Agency, who now work regularly with us on ongoing operations

Tell us some more real-life stories!

Eight black sparrowhawk chicks
Eggstra care: These black sparrowhawk chicks arrived in the UK as smuggled eggs

A recent success saw a prolific bird-of-prey smuggler apprehended at Terminal 2 as he arrived from South Africa.

The individual, Jeffrey Lendrum, had 19 eggs strapped to his body from birds including African fish eagles, African black sparrowhawks, Cape vultures, and hawk eagles.

He was convicted and is now serving 37 months in prison in the UK. The value of the eggs would have been in excess of £80,000.

One of the biggest challenges was making sure that the eggs – which were hatching – were saved. Border Force, working in collaboration with staff at the ARC, incubated the eggs before transporting them to a secure location where their longer-term care could be catered for.

A great day for the team and for the airport partners with whom we work so closely.

What are the most-trafficked items at the moment?

Bright green chameleon
Sight unseen: Chameleon imports surged following a series of beer advertisements

The threats are constantly changing and can be subject to fashion. When a famous beer company advertised with chameleons, we had a rush on imports. Not the best reptile for novices to keep as they require complex and specialist care.

We are concerned about ivory on export from the UK. This is “old” ivory that is smuggled out to be reworked into new items.

We are also concerned about reptile- and snake-skin products. We have just concluded a case with the Metropolitan Police involving a socialite who was importing python-skin baseball hats through Heathrow that she intended to sell.

The eel-fishing season started last week and runs until mid-May. There is a total export ban on the European eel leaving the EU. Although they are legally fished within the EU for about £80 per kilogramme, if they are smuggled to China or South East Asia this illegal trade attracts up to £6,000 per kilo. They are smuggled live in freight, and also hand-carried in bags of water in passenger baggage.

What is CITES?

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is an international agreement that regulates the trade in endangered species.

More than 35,000 species of plant and animal are protected under the convention. The majority can be traded legally through the use of a permitting regime. These permits ensure that the supply chains in these goods are secure, and that wild populations are not threatened by the illegal trade.

The types of goods we see at Heathrow include birds of prey, musical instruments made from endangered timbers, caviar, corals and clothing made from the hide of reptiles and animals.

Border Force’s CITES team has been in existence for around 30 years and is now regarded as being among the best in the world.