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This illegally imported African hawk eagle was seized from a raptor smuggler in Birmingham, UK during a search warrant. Image: Andy McWilliam.

Endangered cotton-top tamarin monkeys stolen to order from Blackpool Zoo. A taxidermist fined for selling a stuffed kestrel on eBay without a sales licence. Endangered birds of prey smuggled using false permits.

Those are just a few of the cases Andy McWilliam has had to deal with recently in his role as investigations officer for the UK's National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU). "Wildlife crime is big business," he says. "Criminals make lots of money from breaking the law – it just so happens that they're dealing in wildlife rather than drugs or guns. We're not talking about a few sharp operators selling snakeskin boots down the local market." 

Cases of illegal trade in endangered animals are not the NWCU's only focus. The unit targets plenty of other eco-offenders too, like poachers or those those who destroy sensitive animal habitats. They also go after international operations, assisting Interpol and police forces from other parts of the world.

According to its last report, the unit processed 10,000 incidents during 2009-10, seizing £400,000 (around $684,000) worth of illegal profits and securing 106 convictions, with 76 more cases waiting to go to court.

His work might be doing a lot of good for wildlife, but Andy McWilliam doesn't describe himself as the natural world's biggest fan. "Apart from a slight interest in ornithology, I'm not really an animal lover," he admits. He got into fighting wildlife crime as a career move, joining the NWCU in 2006, after 31 years with a local police force in the north-west of England, the last eight as its wildlife officer. He explains that UK regional and local police forces have their own wildlife crime officers, but these officers are usually part-timers and wildlife crime is generally not high on police priority lists. 

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Andy McWilliam examines traditional Chinese medicines at a store, looking for ingredients made from endangered animals. Image: Andy McWilliam.

Since joining the unit, McWilliam has racked up some impressive convictions. He can't talk about current cases that haven't yet gone to court, but over the years he's helped local forces convict many wildlife criminals, like the man who sold 300 illegally imported endangered tortoises for around £35,000 (around $60,000). There was also the duo who robbed an antiques dealer of two rhino horns and a Cumbrian farmer who'd been illegally stashing dangerous pesticides.

Sometimes, the cases are downright bizarre. McWilliam recalls finding a caiman in a tank at the back of a car repairs garage and a barn owl housed in a woman's bedroom. His unit has also investigated a London man who kept an eagle owl in his greenhouse (he’d bought the bird as a chick for £45 at a fleamarket and was told it ate tomatoes). 

McWilliam also helped prosecute a businessman who'd been stopped at Birmingham Airport with 14 peregrine falcon eggs worth £70,000 (around $120,000) strapped around his waist in towels. A cleaner at the airport had noticed the man acting suspiciously and had alerted airport officials. The egg boxes were discovered soon afterwards, and airport security later found an incubator and climbing equipment inside the smuggler's car. "Turns out he had previous convictions for taking birds of prey and eggs in Canada and Zimbabwe," McWilliam reveals. "He originally told us that he had a bad back and that a physiotherapist had recommended he strap delicate items (chicken eggs, he told us) around his waist to help with posture."

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Andy McWilliam gets friendly with Sulcatta tortoise whilst serving a warrant. Image: Andy McWilliam.

But McWilliam's day-to-day dealings are not about dramatic manhunts to bring criminals to justice. He's more indoor analyst than thief-taker, spending hours trawling computer media looking for evidence. "Sellers often communicate with buyers via email, and if they think no one is watching, they often leave incriminating clues," McWilliam says. In 2009, he used those clues to gather evidence against a couple who'd been selling skins, skulls and other body parts belonging to some of the world's most endangered species online. 

The skull-selling pair was sentenced to 44 weeks' imprisonment, which was suspended for two years. In the case of the peregrine egg thief, a two-year jail term was reduced on appeal to eighteen months. Both cases highlight why sentencing can be a source of frustration for the NWCU.

That frustration flared up when a 20-year-old man was caught exporting ivory to the US, China and Mexico (he'd been using the word 'oxbone' to get around eBay's ivory ban). Police found two uncarved tusks after raiding the man's house. Dealing in post-1947 ivory carriers a five-year maximum sentence and police had lined up a forensic expert to testify that the tusks were was in fact post-1947. Unfortunately, this evidence was never brought before the court. The defence team successfully demonstrated ambiguity surrounding the definition of raw (or 'unworked') ivory. The prosecution were unable to counter. "It's frustrating that some prosecutors ... don't understand the intricacies of wildlife crime legislation," McWilliam says. In fact, NWCU officers sometimes have to coach legal teams on relevant legislation before a case goes to trial.

Even though steps are being taken to improve the legal resources available for dealing with wildlife crime, McWilliam says provision remains patchy for now. "You have to deter criminals, big and small, from getting involved in wildlife crime and this will only happen if people are prosecuted and convicted," he says. "You can’t bring an animal back; it's not like having your car stolen."