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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Exotic Animal Abductions on the Rise

LONDON -- Missing marmosets, abducted alligators, purloined penguins: Thieves are targeting Europe's zoos and safari parks to supply animal collectors who want to own ever more exotic species, officials say. Conservationists say the practice is harming animals, threatening vital breeding programs and adding to an already-flourishing illegal trade in exotic birds and animals.

"We live in a designer world and people are not satisfied any more with a budgie or a canary -- they want something more exotic," said John Hayward, a former police officer who runs Britain's National Theft Register, the only national database of animal thefts in Europe. He said on average British zoos had suffered a major theft every week for the past few years, involving dozens of animals worth thousands of dollars.

Conservationists fear that the demand for exotic animals will put further pressure on wild populations, which thieves have already targeted for years. This past Friday, for example, a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Lima, Peru, heard how a vast trade in exotic birds -- both legal and illegal -- has decimated populations of African gray parrots, prized for their ability to mimic human speech.

Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or RSPB, says 360,000 African grays were legally traded from 1994 to 2003 -- mostly into Europe -- while thousands more were traded illegally.

Zoo thefts made headlines in December when Toga the baby jackass penguin was stolen from Amazon World Zoo Park on the Isle of Wight, off southern Britain. He was never found.

On June 18, thieves made off with five rare marmosets worth several hundred dollars each from Drusilla's Zoo at East Grinstead, south of London. Police later recovered four of the creatures, along with 14 other monkeys stolen from zoos in Devon and Cambridgeshire. Two men were arrested and will appear in court on Aug. 27. Hayward said some animals were stolen to order by professionals. "These animals are not tame, and you need to know how to handle and care for them," he said.

The more exotic or endangered the animal, the higher the price. The RSPB says one rare hyacinth macaw can fetch up to ?25,000 ($45,000). There are casual thefts, too. In the late 1990s, a man abducted an alligator from a zoo in central England. "He took him to a party to impress his friends, then left him on the doorstep of a pet shop," Hayward said.

Harry Schram, director of the 300-member European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, said some 40 percent of European zoos had suffered thefts. "This problem is growing -- with more species being declared endangered and more regulation, people are going underground," Schram said by telephone from his office in Amsterdam.

Many zoos are now increasing security and some are tagging and chipping their animals. Kath Bright, manager of Amazon World Zoo Park, said penguin parents Kyala and Oscar mourned the loss of 3-month-old Toga for several weeks. "We think Toga may have been stolen to order, because this was not an opportunistic theft," she said. There has been a happy ending: On Feb. 14, Kyala and Oscar hatched another chick, dubbed Temba, meaning hope.