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Wildlife crime unit reprieved

CAMPAIGNERS have secured the immediate future of the UK's only dedicated wildlife crime team, which is based in Scotland.

However, longer-term doubts remain about the National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) which is housed at a former police office in Livingston, West Lothian, after the Westminster Government only agreed extra funding for one year.

Wildlife charity WWF-UK said there should be greater commitment to the unit, which has 12 staff connected to it who are engaged in activities ranging from fighting global poaching to the persecution of rare birds in this country.

The £272,000 it will receive from main funder Westminster next year has been confirmed by Environment Minister Richard Benyon.

The team targets key criminals engaged in serious and organised crime and it has been instrumental in combating the trade in rhino horn, which now has a blackmarket value in Asia as high as gold.

Heather Sohl, chief adviser on species at WWF-UK said: "It's a huge relief to hear the unit will be able to continue operating this year and keep fighting the growing illegal trade in endangered species.

"We are seeing an international poaching crisis, and this country has a part to play in tackling that. The UK is both a transit and destination country for ivory, rhino horn and other illegally traded items, so long-term Government support for the National Wildlife Crime Unit is desperately needed to combat the threat to wildlife."

In October, WWF-UK launched an online campaign, asking the public to write to their MPs and nearly 5000 people signed up.

The charity also urged the Westminster Government to make a stronger commitment by guaranteeing funding beyond March 2014, which was recommended by the committee of MPs who examined the issue last October.

Mr Benyon said: "It's right that a specialist unit supports the police in bringing these people to trial. The funding for another year will mean the unit can continue to bring criminals to justice and tackle the illegal wildlife trade both at home and abroad."

Last year the unit assisted in 175 cases and provided input into 13 ongoing operations involving wildlife crime the UK.

Members – who are police staff and based full-time at the unit – also supported Interpol projects on the sale of ivory online and on the illegal trade in birds and endangered species, particularly tigers.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, (Defra) funds £136,000 of the NWCU budget and the Home Office gives a further £136,000.

The remaining £125,000 annual funding comes jointly from the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and police bodies. The Scottish Government said it will continue to fund the unit.

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