Stories about lizards hidden in underpants and monkeys strapped to midriffs may cause some amusement, but is a much more serious issue than the sometimes lighthearted headlines might suggest. The Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Yury Fedotov expressed grave concerns at the escalation of wildlife crime at a special conference in May of this year.
"US$8-$10 billion is reaped annually from this ruthless trade ranking it alongside the trafficking of human beings, arms and drugs in terms of illicit profits" Mr Fedotov said.
He also warned that a number of iconic and lesser known species risk being wiped out over the next decade by this illegal and often cruel trade.
Our own jewelled gecko is a case in point of Mr Fedotov's warning. This highly endangered native lizard is found in small pockets of habitat in the South Island where its numbers have been greatly reduced through predation by introduced mammals and habitat destruction. In 2010 a German tourist attempted to smuggle 16 of these geckos out of the NZ. Earlier the same year another German tourist attempted to smuggle 44 native geckos and skinks out of the country in his underwear.
Our unique reptiles command high prices overseas with unscrupulous collectors, fueling these attempts of wildlife smuggling. I have even been the victim of this myself losing several captive bred giant geckos to theft, undoubtedly destined for the international black market. Reptiles are the most commonly smuggled animal out of NZ, with our native geckos prized for their rarity, and the fact they produce live young.
Poachers have taken to following research in the scientific community to identify locations of rare geckos and skinks. This has prompted a call for researchers to code locations and be wary of posting photos that could identify specific areas.
In addition to the demand from collectors for exotic pets and the large amounts of money that goes with it, animal smuggling can also be the result of misguided individuals trying to bring home an unusual 'pet' from a holiday or even trying to take their own pet overseas. Regardless of the reason, the concealment of these animals to avoid detection causes a great deal of suffering and many deaths. Highly endangered animals are frequently targets which further depletes threatened species.
Smuggled animals obviously do not undergo any form of quarantine which means exotic diseases can be brought into other countries threatening existing wildlife and agriculture.
In 2010 a German tourist attempted to smuggle 16 jewelled geckos out of NZ.
Parrot eggs are the most commonly intercepted item contributing to the trade in illegal wildlife coming into NZ. Birds like the highly prized macaw species fetch up to $50,000 and smugglers go to great lengths to bring them into the county, with eggs hidden in custom made vests under clothing. A notable arrest was made in 2007, where a South African man was found with 44 parrot eggs potentially worth up to $1.3 million.
Although there are no national figures on wildlife smuggling, a senior investigator involved in wildlife seizures feels it is becoming more prevalent in NZ. "It is done for two reasons - for lucrative financial gain, probably the major reason - and by enthusiasts," he says.
To further deter animal smuggling in NZ, the Wildlife Amendment bill was passed in 2013, increasing the maximum penalty for the smuggling of native animals from six months imprisonment or a $100,000 fine to up to five years imprisonment and /or a $300,000 fine.
NZ has its own multi-agency organisation to combat all forms of illegal trade in wildlife into and out of the country. The Wildlife Enforcement Group (WEG) is an equal partnership between the NZ Customs Service, Ministry for Primary Industries and the Department of Conservation. This group includes vets, search teams, investigators and technical staff. International liaison is an important aspect in tracking wildlife smugglers and the WEG has a close working relationship with Interpol.
Parrot eggs trying to be smuggled into NZ. Photo / Customs
I first encountered the WEG when I was a manager of an aquarium store. I was approached by a man who rather oddly presented me with a salad bowl full of baby turtles he wished to sell. It seemed strange that he knew very little about what where at the time, quite valuable animals. The team from WEG ultimately arrested this man who had smuggled the reptiles into the country for monetary gain with no concern for their welfare. Sadly, as the turtles represented a disease risk to native reptiles they had to be euthanised. As is always the case, the animals pay the price for the greed that motivates the animal smugglers.