According to Police in Sweden, crimes against animals are becoming more frequent. One animal in particular—the great grey owl—has been targeted by animal and plant thieves to sell on underground markets. Rare orchids and reptiles have also become popular marks for the bird snatchers, a police department head explained. A fully grown great grey owl can net upwards of $120,000.
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Already facing threats due to deforestation, great grey owls now risk an even more rapid decline. The species, one of the world’s largest species of owl, only becomes more valuable as the natural population declines. The protected species of owl, once captured gets listed immediately on darknet marketplaces, the Head of the Police Unit for Species Protection Offences, Filippo Bassini said.
But not only darknet marketplaces. He explained that some owl vendors will list owls for sale on private Facebook groups. In addition to darknet markets and Facebook groups, the police unit head said that vendors also sell owls elsewhere on the clearnet. The locations and sites are often private or closed and penetration by law enforcement is not always simple. In 2016, according to data from the Crime Prevention Authority, animal thieves committed 156 crimes against nature conservation or protected species.
While this number is lower than the 2006 peak of 250 crimes against protected species, 156 is the highest number this decade. 2017, while not yet complete, is on track to catch up with 2016’s figure – and likely register more crimes against animals. Bassini said Swedish law enforcement currently investigated 130 crimes linked to violation of protected species laws. He explained that this year, the 130 open cases consist of owl egg theft, orchid theft, and the trade and importation of reptiles.
Reptile trade is incredibly common in the United States and recently an example made mainstream media headlines. It was the case involving the king cobras and soft shelled turtles. Customs agents flagged a California man’s address for drug importation and when a suspicious package landed at Customs, agents suspected the packages would contain drugs. They assumed incorrectly and needed assistance from the US Fish and Wildlife Service; the package contained several potato chip cans of king cobras and six soft shelled turtles.
“It’s often organized leagues, major criminals, who go where the money is. Additionally, the penalties are low,” Bassini explained. In order to adequately battle these organized leagues of major owl thieves, a taskforce of 10 police officers hunt protected species hunters. Now, Bassini is working to spread awareness and to enable collaboration between law enforcement agencies to aid in his quest to end owl theft.