What is the law relating to dangerous wild animals?

The keeping of some exotic animals as pets is strictly controlled when they are classified as dangerous.

Public concern about such animals, especially big cats, being kept by individuals brought about the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.


Licences are required for any animal which appears on a schedule to the Act. Licences are issued by the relevant local authority, and will only be granted when the authority is satisfied that it would not be contrary to public interest on the grounds of safety or nuisance; that the applicant is a suitable person; and the animal's accommodation is adequate and secure.

Where the local authority grant a licence it shall impose conditions on the licence covering issues such as:

  • a requirement that the animal be kept only by a person or persons named on the licence;
  • restrictions on the movement of the animal from the premises as specified on the licence; and
  • a requirement that the licence holder has a current insurance policy which ensures both licence holders and others against any liability caused by the animal.

The Act does not apply to any dangerous wild animal kept in a zoo; circus; pet shop; or registered scientific establishment. Zoos are regulated under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 and scientific establishments are regulated under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. The sale of animals as pets fall under the Animal Welfare Act 2006

Protected species of animals

Some of our rarest species of animals have been dramatically reduced in number, either by direct persecution or by loss of habitat, to such an extent that some are threatened with extinction.  As a result, species that are in danger have been given special protection by the law.

It is an offence to kill or injure any wild animal listed in Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, such as Red Squirrels, Bats (see separate page on bats) Water Voles, Sand Lizards and Natterjack Toads.   It is also an offence intentionally or recklessly to damage or obstruct any place used for their shelter or protection.  Offenders may be arrested and the courts have the power to impose a sentence of 6 months' imprisonment or a fine of £5,000 or both, for each animal.  For a full list of wild animals on Schedule 5, go to Joint Nature Conservation Committee website.

Under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, & c.) Regulations 1994, as amended (known as 'The Habitat Regulations') in respect of European Protected Species.  to be aware of is under Regulation 39(1)(d): It is an offence to damage or destroy a breeding site or resting place of a European Protected Species of animal.  For a full list of European Protected Species of Animals under these regulations, go to the Government website.

Cruelty to wild mammals

All British wild mammals are protected from deliberate acts of cruelty under The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996.  This means that it is an offence to: mutilate, kick, beat, nail or otherwise impale, stab, burn, stone, crush, drown, drag or asphyxiate any wild mammal with intent to cause unnecessary suffering.  This includes unlawful acts which deliberately cause harm to a wild mammal. 

Trade in endangered species of wild animals and plants

The illegal trade in endangered animals and plants is depleting the planet of some of rare species.  Unlawful trading in animals attracts criminal gangs who steal to order, the trade can attain large quantities of money and as such the gangs use corruption, violence, extortion and even murder to smuggle animals across borders. As with all trade, demand and supply are closely linked, if there was no demand for wild animals, plants and derivatives there would not be any trade.  Sometimes wildlife from the UK is in demand abroad.  For example, wild-taken Peregrine Falcons from the highlands of Scotland are much-prized amongst disreputable falconers and are known to have been sold for several thousand of pounds.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)

CITES aims to protect certain plants and animals by regulating and monitoring the international trade to prevent decline and unsustainable levels. Where trade is allowed, regulation is achieved by the issue of import/export permits and licences to offer for sale, sell, etc. such species.  Permits and licences are issued by the Animal Health agency of DEFRA. To obtain more information please see DEFRA's website.

H.M. Revenue & Customs are responsible for the enforcement of controls on trade between the UK and non-EC states.  The police forces are responsible for enforcing the law within the UK in relation to:

  • Illegal trade in endangered species
  • Killing, injuring, taking, disturbing etc. wild birds
  • Taking/possessing/destroying wild birds eggs/nest disturbance
  • Badger persecution
  • Killing, injuring, taking, disturbing etc. wild bats
  • Illegal trapping/snaring of wild animals
  • Illegal hunting of wild mammals
  • Damaging protected sites
  • Illegal poisoning of wildlife
  • Disturbing cetaceans
  • Stealing wild plants
  • Illegal hunting and poaching

There is a multi-agency approach with experts from the police, customs, RSPCA, RSPB, TRAFFIC and other organisations working closely together. CITES protects not only exotic species around the world like tigers and rhinoceros from illegal trade, but also some native species of animals and plants, like the peregrine falcon, the barn owl and orchids.   For more information on CITES visit their website.

The Control of Trade in Endangered Species Regulations 1997 (COTES)

COTES enforces the rules agreed in the convention (CITES). Annexes A, B, C and D to COTES list the species to which the enforcement provisions of COTES apply. In brief, the species included in each Annex are defined as follows:

  • Annex A. Any species which is, or may be, in demand for utilisation in the EC or for international trade and which is either threatened with extinction, or so rare that any level of trade would imperil its survival.
  • Annex B. Any species subject to levels of international trade that might not be compatible with its global survival or with the survival of populations in certain countries.
  • Annex C. Species listed in Annex II to the Convention, of which a reservation has been entered, or listed in Annex III for which the Member States has not entered a reservation.
  • Annex D. Species not listed in Annexes A to C that are imported into the EC in such numbers as to warrant monitoring.

The maximum penalty for offences under these Regulations is five years' imprisonment.

Advice for travellers

You may be tempted to buy exotic souvenirs such as reptile skin handbags and ivory carvings on holiday, but you should remember that trade in many animals, plants and products made from them, is controlled internationally to safeguard endangered species. The trade in tourist souvenirs can threaten the most endangered species and you may also be breaking the law.

If you are thinking of bringing back exotic souvenirs from abroad, you should check with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) which items you can bring back before you leave as you may need a permit. Controlled goods imported without valid permits may be seized by Customs on your return and you could face an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment.

Souvenir Alert

Over 800 species of animals and plants are currently banned from international trade and a further 30,000 strictly controlled by legislation, including many corals, reptiles, orchids and cacti as well as tigers, rhinos, elephants and turtles.

It is not easy to know which souvenirs or gifts to avoid buying and DEFRA's 'Souvenir Alert' campaign - in co-operation with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-UK) - aims to raise awareness of the controls amongst travellers. You can also read a brief guide to some of the products you are most likely to come across. For further information about whether specific species are protected please view the CITES website.

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