A ‘brazen’ taxidermist has been locked up for the second time after admitting illegally trading black rhino horns and tiger skulls.
Aaron Halstead, from Burnley, Lancashire, was handed a 56 week jail term after using false documents to sell rhino horns to ‘rich’ buyers in China for £63,000.
The 29-year-old had also illegally acquired tiger skulls from a dealer based in the Netherlands bringing him to the attention of Dutch Police.
It is the second time Halstead found himself subject of a probe, having previously been handed a 24-week jail term for illegally buying three sperm whale teeth, a cheetah’s skull and a dolphin.
On that occasion he was brought to the attention of authorities after posting a series of photographs on his website of himself posing next to his wild animal collection.
Halstead’s new charges came after his home was raided early last year.
He pleaded guilty earlier this year to nine offences against the Control of Trade in Endangered Species
This legislation makes it illegal to be involved in any way in the selling and trade of anything that claims to be made from a species listed as endangered by the European Commission.
Those offences included selling and transporting black rhino horns, acquiring tiger skulls for a commercial purpose, offering a sperm whale tooth and black rhino skull for sale and keeping elephant tusks for sale.
Prosecutor Adrian Farrow told Preston Crown Court: ‘He was intimately familiar with the legislation and had been provided with specific guidance in relation to it.
‘Against that background, the circumstances of the offences for which he now falls to be sentenced can be characterised as deliberate and calculated actions driven by the considerable financial gains which can be made in such trade.’
Outlining the case, Mr Farrow said the defendant reassured a supplier in a WhatsApp conversation he did not need to be ‘afraid of Customs’ in shipping ten tiger skulls worth 9,000 euros from the Netherlands.
Halstead boasted: ‘It will be fine … I’ve never had anything stopped.
In another WhatsApp chat Halstead arranged a trip to Calais, France, to sell black rhino horns for 70,000 euros to a ‘Chinese rich’ client after he had removed the horns from a head he had lawfully bought at an auction.
The defendant wrote to an intermediary: ‘What story are we using if customs ask?
‘I will put some other taxidermy in the car and make a false invoice… so it looks like I am delivering them to France.’
Mark Stuart, defending, said Halstead, of Glen View Road, had a ‘lifelong interest’ in taxidermy, sparked by his grandfather’s original interest.
He said: ‘He should have stopped trading but he did not.
What the law says about taxidermy Source: Gov.uk
- You need a licence if you plan to transport specimens of dead protected species (listed under annex 4 of the Habitats Directive) for scientific or educational purposes.
- All specimens must have been lawfully taken from the wild within the United Kingdom or the European Union.
- There’s no need to apply for general licences but you must follow the conditions in the licence:
- The specimen must be for scientific or educational purposes.
- You need to be a member of the Guild of Taxidermists.
- You need to be registered with Natural England
‘It was a ridiculous stupid decision to make which he now bitterly regrets.’
He said the defendant’s wife, Heather, who was sitting in court, was ‘utterly astounded’ when she discovered he had been illegally trading again and had told him to close down the taxidermy business, which was dissolved in January 2019.
Halstead was a family man and a qualified swimming instructor who had particularly benefited children with disabilities through his skills, the barrister added.
Sentencing, Judge Robert Altham said: ‘I am told he is sorry but it is difficult to accept that submission put the way it is.
‘He knew what he was doing was wrong.
‘He simply chose to the take the risks even though he was on the wrong side of a custodial sentence in 2014.
‘This was brazen, persistent, well-organised criminality.
‘This is no hapless amateur who has offended by stumbling into an area of legislation he was not aware of.
‘Here was a person who acted deliberately in a flagrant and knowing breach of the law, understanding the risks he took and the harm he could cause but was prepared to take those risks for considerable financial rewards.’
He noted that a ‘most painstaking and careful investigation’ was required after Halstead initially denied any wrongdoing following his arrest in January 2018.
Sentencing Judge Robert Altham told Halstead: ‘You decided to flout the law deliberately and cynically so you could make money.
‘You were a well organised professional and used your legitimate business as a cover.
‘You knew the risks you were taking and the harm caused but you were prepared to take those risks for financial gain.
‘This was an organised and international trade in times committed at high prices. It was brazen, persistent and well organised criminality.’
Halstead’s 2015 charges came after Lancashire Police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit worked together on a big investigation into the illegal trade of critically endangered species.
They claimed Halstead was involved in the sale of sperm whale’s teeth and sawfish rostrums.
Police found that that he sold these animals from a website that he ran from a room in his parents’ house in New Copy Barn, Glen View Road, Burnley where houses sell for around £170,00 according to home evaluation on Zoopla.
On social media he called himself ‘Halstead Taxidermy’ where he posted scores of images showing of stuffed tigers, bears, an orangutan and elephants feet.
He has posted pictures of himself roaring alongside the head of a tiger, riding a giraffe, wearing a leopard skin coat with beaver skin trim – and even driving a car with a stuffed zebra in the back.
During a 2013 raid on his home officers found three sperm whale teeth, a cheetah’s skull and a dolphin skull plus a stuffed snowy owl.
Police described Halstead, who claims he is an animal lover and supporter of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), as a one-man band trader in endangered and antique stuffed and preserved animals and skins.
However, despite the fact he calls his business – run from the ground floor of his parents’ home – Halstead Taxidermy, he is not a taxidermist.
Andy McWilliam from the National Wildlife Crime Unit, previously said: ‘Aaron Halstead is not a taxidermist, he is a trader.’
McWilliam described the room as ‘stacked high’ with items which he was intending to sell through his website.
Lancashire police wildlife officer PC Nigel Keates said it was a ‘rare’ case, but the interest in taxidermy had increased with the popularity of programmes like Game of Thrones, films like Harry Potter and even the Compare the Meerkat adverts.
‘Even high end fashion couture continues to use animal skins for things like handbags and purses,’ he said.
‘There is quite rightly a strong public revulsion in the trade of some of these items and it is important that those who flout the legislation are brought to justice.’
His charges in 2015 were not the first time he has been in trouble: he also has a police caution from 2011 for selling stuffed birds from endangered species.
This article was first published by The Mirror on 24 August 2020. Lead Image: The 29-year-old has already been jailed previously for illegally buying three sperm whale teeth, the skulls of a cheetah and a dolphin in 2015. Image by Aaron Halstaed.
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