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Monkey skulls, snakeskin boots and bear bile: Morbid items fill Heathrow’s ‘dead shed’

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At first glance, it looks as though you’ve stumbled into the rumpus room of an eccentric uncle: guitars stuck up on the wall and, in the background, some taxidermy gone wrong. (If it were ever right.)

But when you focus in on the objects lining the shelves — tiny monkey skulls, for example, and what seems to be the preserved foot of an elephant — it careens quickly toward a house of horrors.

It’s called the “dead shed” — a special room at London’s Heathrow Airport used by the U.K. Border Force to train customs agents tasked with enforcing the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

A skull and items carved from ivory are shown on a table inside the dead shed. There has long been a global push to crack down on the illegal ivory trade. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Finding a postal consignment out of Indonesia, packed with langur and macaque monkey heads en route for sale as “Gothic art” was one of the most upsetting finds for senior border officer Grant Miller, in a career that’s been full of them.

“These primates had been killed to order by people in the United Kingdom. It was a really brutal, brutal day,” he said.

The picture of the illegal wildlife trade on the planet is “massive,” according to Miller.

This skull from a monkey, displayed here, was intended to be sold online as Gothic art. (Lily Martin/CBC)

“It goes from your tourist who goes abroad and buys a souvenir, perhaps a sea turtle shell, up to completely … transnational organized criminals who are trafficking the ivory from an elephant that’s slaughtered every 15 minutes to markets of demand in the Far East,” he said.

“They are doing it not because it’s the animal; it’s a product that they can make profits on, fuelled by greed and pure criminality.”

The illegal wildlife trade is now the fourth-most lucrative in the world for criminal gangs, after drugs, weapons and people smuggling, worth as much as $23 billion US annually. And it’s growing.

Grant Miller is a senior officer with the U.K. Border Force’s national CITES team. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The number of seizures by the U.K. Border Force in 2017 was more than 1,300, up from just 174 in 2011.

That’s also a sign that governments are trying harder to tackle the crisis, according to Miller.

He pulls out a wheeled suitcase, a giant elephant tusk contained within. There were four suitcases in all, he says, brought in from Angola.

“The ivory split over the cases was both completely unworked items, so the raw tusk, but also semi-worked items of beads and bangles; 110 kilos in total and, as you can see, very dirty,” he said. “Indeed, there’s still blood from the animal on [this tusk].”

The U.K. Border Force seized more than 1,300 items in 2017, like these still-bloodied ivory tusks. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The border team used a new fingerprint dusting powder on the Angolan ivory tusks for the first time. It was devised by the Metropolitan Police Service, with King’s College London.

“Previously we were able to lift fingerprints from ivory up to 24 hours,” said Miller. “This new powder allows us to lift fingerprints and ridges up to 28 days, so it’s a massive improvement in our ability to actually bring forensics into the fight against wildlife crime.”

An estimated 20,000 elephants a year are now being slaughtered by poachers for their ivory.

But it’s when you start looking through some of the smaller objects in the room that the scale of the illegal trade becomes even clearer.

There are vials of bear bile, prized and sold in Asian markets as an ingredient in some traditional Chinese medicines. It would have been extracted from the gall bladders of live bears held in captivity.

A sun bear cub is shown at the Chester Zoo, which is located near Liverpool. The cub was born at the zoo after its parents were transferred there after being rescued from poachers in Vietnam. Classified as vulnerable species, this is one type of bear that is commonly harvested for its bile in parts of Asia. (Lily Martin/CBC)

There are also corals and butterflies pinned in frames. 

One small baggie contains what looks like a handful of bruised fingernails. They’re scales from a pangolin, a small anteater whose scaly exterior is also sought after for use in traditional medicines in Asia.

“This is what we believe is the most trafficked mammal anywhere around the world,” said Miller. “We believe we’ll lose a pangolin every five minutes.

“The Asian species have been really decimated and now they’re going after the slightly larger African species.”

A bag of pangolin scales is shown inside the dead shed. Pangolins may be the most heavily trafficked animal in the world due to these scales, which are often used in traditional medicines. In Vietnam, scales are sometimes ground into powders and marketed to lactating women wanting to improve their milk. Pangolin meat is also sold in some restaurants as an expensive delicacy. (Lily Martin/CBC)

If you need it put into starker perspective, Miller says that in West Africa, three-tonne seizures of the scales have been recorded.

More than 180 nations or entities, including Canada, have signed onto CITES, which seeks to protect nearly 6,000 species of animals and some 30,000 species of plants.

The guitars up on the wall — one of which picked up the signatures of Liam and Noel Gallagher somewhere along the way — are there because they’re made partly out of rare rosewood, and arrived without the necessary permits.

Parts of these guitars are made from rosewood, which cannot be brought into the U.K. without a permit. The Union Jack guitar on the left is signed by Liam and Noel Gallagher. (Though its seizure was unconnected to the Oasis brothers.) (Lily Martin/CBC) 

“The value of the permit is that it gives evidence that the supply chain where the goods were taken from is secure and that the wood has been harvested in a sustainable manner,” Miller said. “So it arrived at Heathrow Airport, failed to have permits, so we seized the guitar, which is just up there.”

It’s up to ordinary travellers to better educate themselves, Miller says. He points back to the shell from a sea turtle, all of which are controlled under CITES

“Quite often they’re sold as tourist souvenirs, and this is where the public need to get smarter. A lot of tourists will go to the Caribbean on holiday; you know, if you’re seeing animal and plant products for sale, walk past them. You really don’t need them.”

The work of the U.K. Border Force, of course, is not all about the dead shed and its macabre contents. Customs agents often find people trying to smuggle live animals into the country too.

The illegal wildlife trade is now the fourth-most lucrative in the world for criminal gangs, after drugs, weapons and arms smuggling. (Lily Martin/CBC)

In June, a man arriving from South Africa was arrested at Heathrow wearing a belt containing two newborn vultures and 17 eggs.

And one of the biggest cases currently under prosecution is a smuggling operation that saw 13 endangered White Cay iguanas found alive in the suitcases of two women arriving from the Bahamas.

With a little help from British Airways, the iguanas were repatriated in a rare happy ending.

Snakeskin shoes and other fashion accessories without proper permits and proof of origin are often seized. (Lily Martin/CBC)

The training offered through the dead shed, Miller hopes, has a role to play in a happier ending for the planet.

“My generation is certainly responsible for the increase of plants and animals that are now listed [as endangered], and we owe it to future generations to actually try and reverse the trend of losing wildlife from the wild. If we do not protect these iconic species, we will lose them for future generations.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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