When I was a kid, I kept geckos as pets. Today our reptiles are legally protected and many species are endangered, so to keep them you need a permit from DOC.
New Zealand has an amazing number of native reptiles, and they're very attractive to reptile keepers: many of our geckos are active in the daytime, and give birth to live young, and of course we have the tuatara, a reptile — not a lizard — found nowhere else in the world.
Hobbyists from all over the world look covetously at our native lizards, and they're willing to pay top dollar for some of them. Some go to ridiculous lengths; in 2010 a German man was caught trying to board a flight in Christchurch with 44 live lizards in his underwear. He was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail.
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In 1992 a dedicated three-person team was set up to fight wildlife trafficking, with representatives from DOC, MAF, and Customs. This Wildlife Enforcement Group (WEG) caught dozens of smugglers, mostly of reptiles, though some were intercepted trying to bring in parrot eggs or export rare orchids.
The WEG built up an intelligence network and would be informed that suspicious characters were entering the country so they could try to catch them in the act. Most of the convictions led to relatively light sentences, given the value of the animals — 12 — 18 weeks in prison or a fine — but they likely acted as a deterrent. And about five years ago, for reasons that are still unclear, the WEG was disbanded.
Newsroom investigative reporter Farah Hancock has pieced together the slow whittling-away of the Wildlife Enforcement Group: Staff lost their company cars, then their parking space, and were finally dispersed to a "virtual hub". What was once an intelligence-gathering team was reduced to a memorandum of understanding between three agencies that, years later, has still not quite been finalised.
Since the WEG was disbanded, there have been no convictions for wildlife trafficking in New Zealand. That doesn't mean reptile smuggling has stopped. Reptile collectors are fully aware there's no longer an enforcement team to stop them and are booking their holidays in New Zealand. Last July a gecko was stolen from a DOC visitor centre and never recovered. Last August a lunchbox containing 58 native lizards (only four still alive) was discovered abandoned in Christchurch Botanic Gardens — probably a botched smuggling attempt.
Clearly, what we're doing isn't working. When the WEG was disbanded, we were told that Interpol would step up and supply intelligence on dodgy reptile collectors heading to New Zealand; an Official Information Act request revealed that we've heard nothing from Interpol about illegal wildlife export since 2012. Meanwhile, German reptile enthusiasts display a map of New Zealand at their annual conference, with all the best lizard spots marked.
The threat from illegal collectors is real. Many of our native lizards are found in very small populations, on a single beach or island, or just a few forest patches spread over a wide area. They're slow to mature, and slow to breed, with just one or two babies a year.
One population being monitored was reduced by 95 per cent from collecting, and another lost half its females overnight.
But it's not just the damage to our rare species. I think most New Zealanders would be outraged to discover our native animals are being smuggled overseas under inhumane conditions for the benefit of wealthy hobbyists.
We need a team to fight poaching — dedicated groups policing wildlife crime are common in First World countries with nowhere near the number of endangered species we have. We urgently need to reinstate a Wildlife Enforcement Group.
■ Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum