Press release by HM Customs and Excise

Press release by HM Customs and Excise soon after verdict on 14th April 2000

Mr Sissen of Cornhill Farm, East Cowton, Northallerton, was charged with 4 Customs offences concerning the smuggling of rare parrots, including 3 Lear’s Macaws, under the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979. In contravention of EU law and the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

In April 1998 the premises of Mr Sissen, a well known bird breeder were raided by Customs with support from local police. A large number of CITES Appendix 1 birds (the most critically endangered category and the category where international trade is banned) were seized. Included within this seizure were 3 Lear’s Macaws - evidence heard during the triial indicated that only 150 remain in the wild in Brazil. Also included in this seizure are 6 Blue-headed Macaws - these birds are the first seen imported into the EC. The value placed on these birds is difficult as the only trade seen is on the Black Market. However, a pair of Lear’s Macaws alone are worth in excess of £50,000.

The 3 Lear’s Macaws involved in this case, code named Operation Palate, were located in the former Yugoslavia with a dealer who we believe illegally obtained them from the wild in Brazil. These birds were offered to Mr. Sissen as long ago as 1996, and were eventually illegally imported into the UK in 1997 and 1998. Mr Sissen travelled by car from the UK to Yugoslavia in February 1997 where he obtained 2 of the 3 Lear’s Macaws. He then proceeded to enter Slovakia and purchased the 6 Blue Headed Macaws from another dealer. These birds were then smuggled across the Austrian border into the EC. From there they were then taken via Germany and Belgium to Calais, where they were then smuggled into the UK through Dover. In the following March the third Lear’s Macaw was smuggled into the UK by a similar route and method.

At no time did Mr Sissen apply for or receive CITES certificates for these birds and in cross examination Mr Sissen admitted all other importation paperwork obtained was bogus and in effect an "insurance policy" should he be intercepted by Customs.

Additionally uplifted as a result of the raid on Mr Sissen’s premises were 2 stuffed Lear’s Macaws. During the trial evidence was heard from five witnesses that Mr Sissen had admitted illegally importing these birds from Yugoslavia and Slovakia One of these witnesses was The Right Honourable William Hague, The Leader of the Opposition, who was approached by Mr Sissen to complain about the raid.

HM Customs and Excise take their responsibility very seriously in seeking to enforce the EU wide import/export controls on Endangered Species. We fully recognise that the UK as a signatory of CITES has an obligation to seek to prevent the illegal exploitation of rare species world-wide.

Whatever the motive involved, it is the actions of individuals like Mr Sissen, who create a demand (and high prices) for endangered species, which directly leads to their removal from their native habitats.

In 1997 the EU sought to tighten the import and export controls on endangered species. This was, in part, to reflect growing concern that numbers of endangered species were still entering the Community illegally. The new EU regulation made it a requirement that Member States must be able to impose effective penalties on those who sought to deal in or move controlled species illegally. We believe the penalties available under CEMA of up to seven years imprisonment provide an effective deterrent to wildlife smugglers.

The Department wishes to express its gratitude for the assistance given during this case by the Zoo Federation, Parrot Society, Corporation of London, Animal Reception Centre, Mr. Andrew Greenwood, vet, RSPB and other wildlife organisations.

With regard to the future of the seized birds in this case, I can confirm that the Brazilian Government has formally requested the repatriation of the 3 Lear’s Macaws. The primary objective after confiscation of the Lear’s Macaws and other birds seized must be to ensure that they can form part of a breeding programme aimed at preserving these very rare species in the wild.

Our Investigation Officers (with expert assistance) identified a number of other endangered parrot species at Mr. Sissen’s premises. These birds were removed and Mr. Sissen was subsequently asked to prove their legal origin. Mr. Sissen has exercised his right in law to contest our actions, and a form of civil (Condemnation) proceedings will be held to review the legality of our actions in seizing these birds. At all times Customs have sought to provide the seized birds with the best available accommodation and expert veterinary care.

At Newcastle Crown Court on Friday, l4th April:

1. Sissen was convicted on four counts of illegally importing 3 Lear’s Macaws and 6 Blue-headed Macaws by a majority verdict of 10 to 2 jurors. 6 Blue Headed

2. Sissen was sentenced to two and a half years on each count to run concurrently. He was also ordered to pay £ 5,000 towards the costs

3. Condemnation proceedings and Asset Confiscation proceedings were adjourned until a later date

4. Sissen was described by the Trial Judge, His Honour Judge Guy Whitburn as being "A devious and scheming man who as a result of the verdicts is both a liar and a hypocrite"

5. This was the highest ever sentence given in a British court for CITES offences.

6. Parrots are big business - cost per pair

Hyacinth Macaws £ 15,000 to 20,000

Spix’s Macaws £ 50,000

Lear’s Macaws £ 50,00

The latter two species could cost much more because of their rarity value.

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( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)