• DAY 316: WILD ANIMALS IN A SILENT ROOM – PHOTOS OF ILLEGAL CONTRABAND

    Aug 07 2013
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    On a plain office table we perched a number of illegally seized wildlife specimens and starting take photos….

    There’s something eerie about seeing tiger cubs, leopards, herons, rare tortoises and whale teeth confined in a bland urban office.

    The Wildlife Crime Unit keeps hundreds of  seized contraband specimens in a silent unmarked room in a non-descript building somewhere in London.  I tried to capture these ex-creatures’ spectacular beauty – and horror – against the most meaningless background I could find.

    No-one hears you scream when you’re standing on an Ikea table.

     

    A stuffed leopard in unceremonious garb and elephant tusk - seized contraband at the Wildlife Crime Unit

    A stuffed leopard in unceremonious garb and elephant tusk –

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    Table full of seized ivory. Some elephant tusks are now removed from the animal with explosives

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    This is a hippo tooth. It is linked to photo 1

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    This is an African Black Rhino Horn. It was traced to a company based in London, who were intending to sell it into the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) market back in 1996.

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    Elephant tusk seized from man involved in the trade of ivory. He had elephant ivory and a large quantity of hippo ivory that was being carved into figurines. He was charged by police

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    Badger hair and ivory shaving brushes seized from Jermyn Street, London

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    These are thigh bones of the rare Asiatic Black Bear. They were being passed off as Tiger bone, as these are more valuable in the TCM market. They were being offered for sale by a TCM shop in Soho

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    This bird trap was seized from someone in South East London, who was taking part in wild finch trapping in 2012. The captured birds are often then put into the pet trade or sold to restaurants

    These bird eggs were seized by an egg collector in London. He travelled to Scotland to collect many of the eggs. Police recovered some 700 bird eggs were recovered from his home address. He was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment

    These bird eggs were seized by an egg collector in London. He travelled to Scotland to collect many of the eggs. Police recovered some 700 bird eggs were recovered from his home address. He was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment

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    Rare tortoise shells

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    Elephant tusk

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    This mink was donated to the Wildlife Crime Unit so that it could provide an example of a non-native species and the consequences of such a species being introduced into the wild

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    This Hawksbill turtle was seized from a North London taxidermist. This species is unfortunately very commonly used in the illegal wildlife trade

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    The crocodile skin bag was handed into the police after the owner found out that it was actually made from real crocodile!

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    The Guillemot was seized from the same taxidermist in North London

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    This Tawny Owl was seized from an address in South East London

     

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    Gall bladders seized in Soho. They were sold as bear gall; they are infact pig gall bladders

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    Guillemot seized from a taxidermist in North London

    These small bottles contain ground bear bile. This item was seized at London Heathrow Airport by the National CITES Enforcement Team at UK Border Force.

    These small bottles contain ground bear bile. This item was seized at London Heathrow Airport by the National CITES Enforcement Team at UK Border Force.

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    Cory’s Shearwater bird seized from taxidermist in North London

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    This is a Purple Heron, which is a rare visitor to the UK. It was seized in Brixton as the owner was unable to prove legal possession of the item. The owner had a very large collection of taxidermied birds in their collection

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    The badger was donated to the Wildlife Crime Unit as an educational aide, to highlight the issues of badger persecution.

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    The making of….

    This tiger cub got to me most...

    This tiger cub got to me most…

    Me and my assistant, Jake, spent two hours trying different set ups before settling on the bland office table.

    Me and my assistant, Jake, spent two hours trying different set ups before settling on the bland office table.

    The gear we took - in the end we mostly used available light

    The gear we took – in the end we mostly used available light

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  • DAY 284: BUS JOURNEY FROM HELL INTO LAOS. NOW I KNOW WHAT PANGOLINS FEEL LIKE.

    Jul 06 2013
    The route the bus takes in black, the route the pangolins take in red. Would i see them out of the window??

    The route the bus takes in black, the route the pangolins take in red. Would i see them out of the window??

    Why have I taken a 26 hour bus journey across the hills of Vietnam into Laos for $26? Do I think I am 26 again?

    I’m off to try and track the illegal trade in Laos, which, apparently, is much more visible over there than in the more developed Vietnam.

    Coincidentally the route that the bus takes is actually the route, back to front, that the illegal trade takes through Laos, into Vietnam and up to China. I’ll look out my vomit strewn window….

    I used to enjoy folding myself into a metal seat, eating my knees, whilst the woman next to me tended to her chickens – it was an adventure. But now that I’m accustomed to duvets and complaining in restaurants it’s not so easy to fold so small. Tolerance dwindles with age.

    The bus was a second hand Korean military bus which sat on the side of the road spewing fumes. A very small Vietnam man shouted at us and threw our bags into the hold. He was so aggressive and one young backpacker so small with such a big bag on her back that he didn’t realize he picked her up as well as the bag and tried to throw here into the hold too.

     

    Rape on the bus???

    I overheard one traveller say this was ‘the death bus’ as each journey someone was sure to get violently ill. Recently the bus had secretly gassed all the travellers through the A/C and bandits had come on and stolen all money or raped the passengers who later woke up with blurry memories and no pants or money.

    I tied myself up in a blanket ready for an adventure and fell asleep.

    We broke down twice, once because a policeman said we should have working lights in pitch of night and once when fumes started coming into the cabin so that we couldn’t breathe. I anticipated passing out and imminent rape but turned out it was a legitimate poisoning. The driver got out, saw that the electrics had gone, found some string on the floor and repaired the engine with it. When I stood and looked in horror he hit me with a flipflop and screamed to get me back in my seat.

    I didn’t sleep too much more and ended up speaking to an elderly Vietnamese man next to me who spoke English with a Russian accent and loved Dostoyevsky and claimed to be a dissident. He had grown up in communist Vietnam and had been sent to Moscow to learn Russian as a teenager and then returned to discover he hated communism. Nevertheless he retained a thick moustache and a wild husky laugh that he must have picked up from siberia.  He said he was being targeted by officials as he wrote a blog about things the government did wrong. I told him about my blog saying that the vietnamese were wankers about the wildlife.

    We arrived bleary eyed in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, at 3pm a few hours before I had to meet my pangolin contact to get some essential info on the trade and where I should go next. I have just heard that the guide who was due to take me out into the jungle has gone missing for a few months – he knew about the monkey trade. This doesn’t bode well.

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  • DAY 283: I’M OFF TO LAOS TO GET CLOSER TO PANGOLINS

    Jul 05 2013
    Laos, my new destination - home to many pangolin. Or at least, once it was....

    Laos, my new destination – home to many pangolin. Or at least, once it was….

    Finally a reply to the 523 email/phone calls I’ve made around the world. An expert group has given me a tip-off that I must cross the border to Laos if I want to get closer to the elusive Pangolin trade – more info to follow shortly.

    I will leave immediately without knowing who they are or where I am to go except for meeting someone in the capital – Vientiane, tomorrow.

    Laos is one of the most lawless and vibrant areas for wildife trade and a key point on the route for Pangolins travelling from Thailand and elsewhere to China over land. If I am going to see anything I will see it there. 

     

    laos-location-map

    Laos lies to the west of Vietnam, tucked above Cambodia and Thailand and beneath Burma and China.  It isn’t  as famous as its neigbours, geographically, culturally or politically, althought it had far more bombs dropped on it per sq mile during the US war (actually more than any country in the world). I went a long time ago – dense jungles, lush green landscapes, vast rivers, kind people – I was surprised it wasn’t a more desired location. But it was also very very poor. Rich in nature, poor in pocket: a perfect combination for a painfully successful wildlife trade. I doubt there are any pangolins left. But it is beautiful, that is for sure.

    Beautiful but ravaged - the wilds of Laos are becoming emptier and emptier because of the wildlife trade.

    Beautiful but ravaged – the wilds of Laos are becoming emptier and emptier because of the wildlife trade.

     

    I have only a few days left so I am not sure what I will see – whether it be hunters, living pangolins, international trade trucks, whispering criminals, empty forests…..or nothing at all. But I have one chance….

    to save money I am taking the 25 hour bus journey over the mountains for $25. Luxury, here I come.

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  • DAY 205: HOW DANGEROUS IS IT TO RESCUE WILDLIFE IN INDIA?

    Apr 22 2013
    Driving into the Indian back country where leopards, elephants and bears roam. Bush and forest like this is becoming increasingly rare as human population and cities grwo

    Driving into the Indian back-country where leopards, elephants and bears roam. Bush-land and forest like this is becoming increasingly rare as human population and cities grow at a relentless pace.

    As we drive down the dusty track in the blistering heat I ask Kartick about the risks of his job. Just how dangerous is it?

    This is not so much journalistic interest as self preservation– I’ve offered to help with any rescue that comes up in the next few days. Gulp.

    ‘Yes, it can be fairly dangerous,’ he says, more calmly than I would like. ‘But life is short. We have very little time help these animals. I always say, no good deed goes unpunished. It’s worth the risk’

    I begin to wonder if my life will be short after this trip or what sort of punishment I will receive for my various good deeds.Probably nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

    Much of Kartick’s job entails intercepting traders who sell wildlife either alive or cut into bits for so-called ‘medicinal’ properties: tiger blood, bear penis, pangolin scales. Mostly it’s the Chinese that devour this but lets be inclusive and say we all like a bit of  good old trusty traditional medicine. Whenever I used to go out for a night I always found drinking tiger’s blood inevitably led to meeting attractive women. Equally I’ve found that every time I have a life threatening sickness I cure it by placing a dead pangolin on my head. Incredible, the power of these wildlife.

    A whole (or part) tiger can fetch a few thousand dollars in India - enough incentive to risk the often fairly small chance of prosecution

    A whole (or part) tiger can fetch a few thousand dollars in India – enough incentive to risk the often fairly small chance of prosecution

    bear paws are especially prized in the illegal wildlife trade.

    bear paws are especially prized in the illegal wildlife trade.

     

    This image, courtesy of FourPaws, is not from India but illustrates the risk to bears cubs in India that are stolen from their mothers for international trade. Bears typically spend a number of years with their mothers in the wild.

    A screaming bear cub is taken from its mother. This image, courtesy of FourPaws, is not from India but illustrates the risk to bears cubs over here that are stolen from their mothers for international trade. Bears typically spend a number of years with their mothers in the wild and if removed at too young an age suffer serious emotional damage

    Courtesy FourPaws

    Courtesy FourPaws

    If one thinks of saving wildlife as being all about running through jungles with a large net think again.Catching the traders can take weeks of preparation on the phone and in meetings and the juggling of sketchy intelligence, shady informers and a complex police system.

    And even after meticulous planning the raid can go totally wrong. One of Kartick’s employees was kidnapped whilst on a raid. ‘He disappeared and we thought he was dead. Then his wife got cryptic messages saying he was OK. Turns out that they broke his legs and left him somewhere remote. He was so mentally distraught that for months he couldn’t face returning home. He lived in the middle of nowhere to recover before he could face the world again’

    Again, Kartick is more calm about this than I would like.

    ‘I see’, I say.

    ‘But that’s rare’, he says.

    ‘Why do informers give you this information? Do they care that much about the animals?’

    ‘Not really. Often they want to settle an old score. Get someone else into trouble. They themselves may be part of the same shady world. I would make a fairly good criminal myself if I wanted to be. I have had to learn to think like they think to stay one step ahead.’

    I too know how criminals think. As a teenager, I once stole a Curly-Wurly bar from a corner shop. And when I felt decidedly guilty I managed to go back into the shop and un-steal it. I remember panicking about the punishment I might get if  caught re-stocking their shelves.

    Stolen goods.

    If you do steal, make sure to give it back.

    Snake bite

    But the risks of Kartick’s job don’t just come from humans. The animals are dangerous too. Naturally enough.

    ‘I was up most of the night.’ he told me ‘There was a rogue snake rescuer that got bitten by a snake last night- a cobra – and I got the call. It got him right in the stomach.  He’s now in a coma. He wasn’t one of our guys but we went to help out’

    Of the 274 indigenous snakes in India there are only four that are poisonous. The cobra is one of them

    Of the 274 indigenous snakes in India there are only four that are poisonous. The cobra is one of them

    The phone rings – again – and he has a brief conversation.

    ‘That was the sister of the snake bite guy . She seems pretty calm. Either she’s hard as nails or she wasn’t close to him’

    ‘Will the guy make it?’

    ‘Probably not. Not from a bite in the stomach.’

    ‘Really?’

    He looks at me with a half smile. ‘Occupational hazard’

    TOMORROW – I’m off to visit the bear sanctuary. In the meantime there are murmurings of a wildlife trade rescue I may be able help with involving a bear cub. But information is scant and – just in the nick of time – I seem to be coming down with an Indian illness.

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  • DAY 199: DEAR SAN MIGUEL.. I LIKE YOUR BEER BUT DO YOU KNOW YOU ARE SPONSORING A DOG MEAT RESTAURANT

    Apr 15 2013

    AN OPEN LETTER TO THE OFFICE OF SAN MIGUEL

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    Dear San Miguel,

    Your beer is very nice – with a touch of spice –  but I wondered if you know that are sponsoring the sign on a restaurant in the Philippines that sells illegal dog meat?

    Your brand is more spicy than I thought.

    On the 15th March 2013 some friends and I visited an eatery in Baguio, Philippines, that had a large San Miguel sign on the front of it, see the photo below.

    The 'Comiles' restaurant in Baguio

    The ‘Comiles’ restaurant in Baguio that offered us dog meat

    When we sat down we were immediately offered a choice of meals which included  ‘Pulutan’. We had a Filippino man with us who confirmed that this was ‘dog meat’ and we also made a video recording of the waitress offering the food. Shortly afterwards we watched someone eat some dog and took the below photos.

    Dog meat served at the same restaurant.

    Dog meat served at the same restaurant.

    As you may be aware, the selling of dog meat in restaurants for general consumption is illegal in the Philippines. The dog meat industry is as such unregulated and involves a huge amount of cruelty and suffering. If you want evidence for this I’d be happy to provide it.

    I hope to hear your reply within seven days (22nd April) or I will assume – as will the readers on my blog at www.yeartohelp.com  (where I have posted this message as well as on facebook) – that you won’t take action and that San Miguel is willing to be associated with the illegal and cruel dog-meat trade.

    Yours, in anticipation,

    Martin Usborne

     

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  • Day 183: PAWS FOR FOOD, PAWS FOR THOUGHT: a visit to a dog meat restaurant leaves me with little taste for San Miguel

    Mar 26 2013

     

    The hills around Baguio, dog meat capital of Philippines.

    The hills around Baguio, dog meat capital of Philippines.

    While we are waiting to do the undercover raid on dogs bound for slaughter we are off to visit a dog-meat restaurant in Baguio, north of Manila.

    Don’t worry,  I’m not here to shock you or show you ‘orrible pictures.

    I would rather have you here on the ride with me.

    Why are you off to visit a dog meat restaurant, Martin?  what help is that going to do? Don’t you know I’m eating a ham sandwich??

    Well…

    1)  If we can catch people serving dog meat illegally we can get help with prosecutions

    but more importanly

    2)  I’m here to confront some truths.  I still eat meat (less now than ever but still I do) and I still love dogs. How will I feel when I see dog meat? Should I…er… eat some? If I’m willing to eat pigs shouldn’t I get real and eat dog? No, no, no, no, don’t do it!!!

    It’s a seven hour car ride in the vicious heat with Andrew, from Network for Animals, and our two new companions, Frank and Rosalyn, both also in the animal rescue trade.

    These vegans, I tell you.  Not only do they avoid all eggs, meat and that other animal constitute – tasty bacon – but they have boundless energy. Is it the beans?

    Bacon is SOOO fine.

    A fine piece of Bacon

    Ahhh..doesn't that make you feel better. Bet they eat them  somewhere. China? Hmmm...

    Ahhh. a cute bear..doesn’t that make you feel better? Bet they eat them somewhere. China? Hmmm…

     

     

    Baguio – The Filipino capital 0f dog meat

    Up in Baguio, a small hill village north of Manila that tries to hide it self in the low misty clouds, dog meat is considered a cultural heritage. Although the meat is illegal many of the restuarants openly, almost proudly, sell the stuff. And the police do nothing. Why? Because they eat meat too! It’s  difficult to shift a pattern of beliefs when they grow out of the soil under your feet. There is also a Korean population here.  If you are a puppy with some meat on your legs you should always worry about hanging out near Koreans.

    On the drive up Andrew makes endless calls to try and secure the raid on the dog trucks that we are planning in the next few days.

    ‘We are waiting for help from the mayor.’ says Andrew putting down the phone with a sigh

    What’s going on? Every vicinity in Philippines is presided over by a mayor , i find out, and everything has to go past the damn mayor. He has god-like power. If he doesn’t like the colour of your socks you are DUST. One local mayor subdued drug dealing by painting vast signs on the front of a suspected dealer’s house saying ‘I DEAL DRUGS’. I think the guy got done by vigilantes. Either that or he sold loads more drugs. Either the way they Mayors are a law unto themselves.

    Unfortunately we need teh mayor’s go-ahead for the dog truck raid over the next few days.

     

    Arriving at the dog meat restaurant.

    There are 14 restuarants in Baguio that Network for Animals have identified as selling dog meat. A brisk trade, then.

    We go to one of the the restaurants.

    The welcoming sign outside the dog-meat restaurant

    The welcoming sign outside the dog-meat restaurant

    Kind of trashy. An old metal sign that leads down some sodden concrete steps.

    Frank, a passionate videographer who has filmed baby seals being clubbed to death to raise awareness and still manages to have a sense of humour, wires himself up with a hidden camera. I take mine in openly as if a tourist. Since I am with a car load of vegans, and since there isn’t much to eat at motorway service stations apart from burgers I have spent the last 7 hours in the car both meat-free and BLOODY FAMISHED. Not a good state in which to go into a dog-meat restaurant. Don’t be tempted Martin.

    The woman behind the counter- the owner –  is shifty. She sees my camera and looks at me distrustingly. I smile. Like any hungry tourist would in a dog meat restaurant. The place is dingy, low light, grotty, fairly empty. We have missed the lunch serving.

    We are late for lunch.

    We are late for lunch.

    We sit down in half darkness and a waitress comes over and immediately offers us ‘Chicken, beef or pulatan stew’  Each item is about 2 dollars but the pulatan has a 10% premium. ‘Pulatan’  is dog meat. You pay for the privilege – not much, after all dog is fairly cheap to source and kill but it does carry a cost for being illegal.

    I try to get access to the kitchen but they are clearly defensive.

    I try to get access to the kitchen but they are clearly defensive.

    We try to ask about the ‘pulutan’ but the woman behind the counter loses her cool, reprimanding her waitress for offering it us before telling us we can’t have it.  But not before we have the video footage on the sting camera.

     

    A man barks at me.

    Andrew then whispers in my ear ‘See that guy over there, he’s just ordered pulatan too, his stew will be out in a few minutes. Lets try and stay here a little longer’

    A man two tables away is having some soup , apparently a common forerunner to dog meat. While Andrew talks to the lady at the counter I hover with my camera.

    The stew comes out to the man. Guess what? The dog meat looks like….MEAT. Nothing weird about it. Course not, what would be weird?  I bumble up to him in my best naive but irritating-british-tourist kind of way and ask if i can take his picture.  Naturally he tells me to stick it and covers his food with his hand but not before I have already fired off five pictures. He gets up angrily and barks something at me (eaten too much dog have we?) and brushes past me.

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    Dog meat..hmmm, kind of looks like beef.

    Dog meat..hmmm, kind of looks like beef.

    I look at the food.

    What do I feel about it?

    My reaction is predictable. I feel nothing whatsoever.

    Why?

    Because it’s just meat. Of course it is. But that is the point. We are conditioned to accept meat – whether it is roasted, fried or sliced. Thank fully I had no desire whatsoever to try some of it but you know what? I feel kind of an arsehole for NOT eating it. Why the hell shouldn’t I if I eat pig?

    But there you go. I join the legion of other irrational people that care for animals….and eat it. I’m feeling more of a fool every day.

    But here is the crazy bit…

    …the man who has strode angrily out of the shop then decides to turn back into the restaurant and ask for the illegal meat to be packed up… to go. Yes, that’s right, he wants a  DOGGY BAG to take his dog meat home.

    THAT’S HOW MUCH THEY LOVE THEIR POOCHES UP HERE.

    I can’t feel angry at him.

    We walk out hastily. When we are back in the car Andrew shifts in his seat.

    ‘See the sign for that restaurant?’  I look up.

    ‘Yep, why?’

    ‘I wonder if San Miguel know they are the sponsor of a restaurant that sells illegal dog meat? ‘

    This is how the compassionate mind must work . It’s not all about stroking cute animals.  Try and get leverage from the big brands. Mix things up a little.

    Anyone have any thoughts on how we could get this message out to San Miguel??? I’m sure those animal loving Spaniards wouldn’t want to be associated with anything as barbaric as this?

    Let’s try it.

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