Taxidermist jailed after showing off stuffed elephants and tigers on Facebook

Aaron Halstead, 29, was caught after posting pictures of his wares on social media (Picture: Cavendish Press)

A taxidermist who showed off his large collection of endangered animal mounts on social media has been jailed for over a year.

Aaron Halstead, 29, pleaded guilty to nine offences related to the illegal trade of critically endangered species, including the purchase of tiger skulls, tiger teeth and black rhino horns between September 2014 and January 2018.

In pictures posted on Facebook, the swimming instructor can be seen roaring next to a tiger’s head, riding a stuffed giraffe and driving a car with a stuffed zebra on the back seat.

Prosecutors said he sold a ‘significant quantity’ of items from protected species for huge sums, mainly to wealthy Chinese buyers.

In Whatsapp messages he told a supplier ‘my guy will only buy them if they have all original teeth’ while paying €9,000 euros (£8120) for 16 tiger skulls so he could sell them online.

He also arranged to meet a client in Paris as part of an €80,000 (£72,170) deal for two black rhinoceros horns.

Jurors at Preston Crown Court, where he was sentenced to 56 weeks’ jail today, heard how he told an associate: ‘I must be mad. I’m in France meeting the Chinese mafia.’

He called his business Halstead Taxidermy on Facebook, where he posted dozens of images of stuffed animals including tigers, bears and an orang-utan.

It’s understood most of the mounts shown here are not illegal (Picture: Cavendish Press)
A seven-and-a-half foot bear was one of many items he advertised on Facebook (Picture: Cavendish Press)
Halstead, from Burnley, was jailed for offences over a four-year period (Picture: Cavendish Press)

Lancashire Police said interest in his business had been boosted by the popularity of Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter films and Compare the Meerkat adverts.

The other items his latest offences related to were sperm whale teeth, sawfish rostrums, African bush elephant tusks and the keeping for sale of two tiger cubs and an African tree pangolin.

Paperwork showed he made at least £99,000 over the period in question, though many of his transactions were made in cash and so could not be tallied.

His home and business premises were raided in January 2018 after he offered rhino horns to a customer who contacted him via Instagram about the sawfish rostrums.

Pictures posted on Facebook show the defendant with an array of animal mounts (Picture: Cavendish Press)
Halstead kept some of his wares in a ground-floor room at his parents’ home (Picture: Cavendish Press)

Preston Crown Court was told he was a one-man-band trader who kept some of his wares in a room at the home he lived in with his partner and family members.

He also stored items at the leisure centre where he worked as a swimming instructor.

Although many of his sales were above-board, prosecutor Adrian Farrow said Halstead’s messages to buyers and suppliers showed he was keenly aware of how much money he could make from protected items.

In further WhatsApp exchanges with the supplier of the tiger skulls he proposed removing the horns from a legal rhino mount and swapping them for fake ones while illegally selling the horns abroad.

In messages with other suppliers Halstead discussed telling fake cover stories to customs officials and making false invoices over transactions worth tens of thousands of pounds.

The 29-year-old worked as a swimming instructor during the time in question (Picture: Cavendish Press)
A tiger skin was another example of items he owned which are not illegal (Picture: Cavendish Press)

The messages the ‘use of intermediaries and the efforts to disguise the nature of the transaction’ and’the extent to which the defendant was prepared to balance the risks of detection against the rewards of the successful sale’, Mr Farrow added.

It’s the third time Halstead, from Burnley, Lancashire, has fallen foul of laws preventing illegal animal trading.

In 2015 he was sentenced to 24 weeks in prison after detectives found he had illegally bought sperm whale teeth, cheetah skulls and a dolphin, and tried to sell a snowy owl without proper licensing.

He was also cautioned for selling stuffed endangered birds in 2011.

His latest conviction followed an investigation by Lancashire Police and the National Wildlife Crime Unit which appeared to have been helped by his attempts to advertise his stuffed or preserved animals corpses and skins online.

Halstead was sentenced to 21 months’ jail, a few years short of the maximum five-year sentence for such offences (Picture: Cavendish Press (Manchester) Ltd)

In mitigation, defence lawyer Mark Stuart said: ‘He had a long-standing interest in taxidermy which he got from his grandfather, but he became greedy and disconnected from what he was doing.

‘If he had bought the rhinoceros and then sold them as he had bought them it would not have been illegal. However he removed the horns, weighed them and sold them at home and abroad.’

‘This was a ridiculously stupid and greedy decision. He finds it difficult to explain why he did this but he did do it. He dissolved the company in January 2019 and has not traded since October 2018.’

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.

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