Australia is both a source and destination country for illegal wildlife trade,
particularly the trade in live animals to be used as pets. High demand from
reptile and pet collectors in Europe and North America, and increasing demand
in China, Japan and other Asian countries, is intensifying pressure on
Australian wildlife. Over 80 percent of Australian flora and fauna are endemic
seizures have been increasing in Australia, with lizards, snakes and other
reptiles making up the majority of animals seized alive (Wyatt, 2013)
▼ Source of the crime
Australia, a multitude of actors engage in wildlife trafficking. This includes
criminals acting undercover in the legal wildlife industry, opportunists and
overseas syndicates, some acting alone
or in small semi-organised groups.
specificity and variety of wildlife involved in seizures suggests that wildlife
is illegally procured by specialist hunters to fulfil specific orders from
local collectors, dealers and overseas syndicates. Unscrupulous licensed
wildlife breeders launder wild-caught animals though their facilities and
illegally export “designer breeds”, including morphs of common species.
syndicates likely interact with urban dealers who direct poaching activities and coordinate with unscrupulous
breeders, consolidating wildlife for packaging and onward shipment via mail or
air passenger luggage.
Australia’s largest seizure of illegal
wildlife occurred in April 2018 and included 198 reptiles, 58 venomous snakes,
16 marsupials, two spiders and three cockroaches across various species. This illustrates the
breadth of wildlife targeted by traffickers.
receive payments for wildlife with transactions in the thousands of dollars
either via wire or through bank transfers, and in some cases barter Australian
species for other exotic species. The criminals hide money in overseas accounts
and launder illicit proceeds through front companies. As in wildlife crime more
generally, repeat offenders are common, even after multiple convictions.
▼ Strong laws, weak enforcement
Australia, the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and
Communities oversees the CITES permit system. All import and export of wild
animals is prohibited without a licence, and a permit system is in place for
captive breeding and native flora collecting and growing (Wyatt, 2013). In addition, states and
territories have their own system of licensing, enforcement and sentencing of
strong laws exist, in practice custodial sentences have typically been rare and
fines are often less than the value of wildlife seized (Wyatt, 2013; Alacs, 2008). Wildlife
traffickers take advantage of varying legislation and lack of enforcement to
get away with smuggling wild animals.
According to multiple studies, wildlife crime in Australia remains a low
priority, typically perceived as related to individual transgressions, not as
an organised crime.
The following infographic offers a simplified
view of the pet trafficking chain between Australia and Asia.
▼ Bundled off in transit...
Syndicates recruit couriers to
smuggle wildlife in air passenger luggage and use mail services to directly
ship wildlife to destination points soon after capture. Traffickers may use
addresses at hotels to avoid having wildlife sent to their homes. When trading wildlife as “legal” goods, traffickers
falsify documentation to facilitate import and export of wildlife. Unsurprisingly, most wildlife seizures occur at airports and mail centres
and during raids (Wyatt, 2013).
Smugglers disguise live animal shipments in electronics including speakers, deep fryers and rice cookers. Animals may be hidden inside children’s toys, potato chip tubes, powdered drink tins or plastic boxes. They have also been found in socks inside suitcases, in coffee mugs or rolled up in towels or other clothes. Animals are often taped or bound to restrict movement, and can be wrapped in aluminium foil or plastic wrap to evade scanning equipment.
Live animals can also be sent by mail. For example, a smuggler was arrested in September 2018 for attempting to smuggle live native lizards out of Australia to Hong Kong. Eleven parcels containing lizards were found at various Australian Post outlets between August and September 2018.
▼ When the wildlife goes to market
Australian wildlife can increase in value exponentially once exported. For example, shingle back lizards purchased locally for AUD 100 can be sold for AUD 5,000 in Asia, and when paired can fetch AUD 20,000.
Alongside growing markets in China and Japan, the EU is a primary market for wildlife smuggled out of Australia (Crook & Van der Henst, 2020). Loopholes in EU legislation facilitate species laundering and enable green-collared crime (ENDCAP, 2012; Musing, 2020):
- Species not native to the EU or listed by CITES can be freely traded within the EU, even if they are threatened or strictly protected in their native range.
- Animals identified as captive bred, even those listed under Appendix I (or A for EU legislation), can also be freely traded within the EU.
- Some of the most expensive animals traded in Europe are protected by national laws in their country of origin but have no legal protection in the EU. The rarity of these species outside of their homelands drives up prices, while the absence of penalties for selling them creates a cover of legality (Auliya, 2016).
Other law enforcement challenges include varying and weak laws across
member states, lack of knowledge on wildlife trafficking amongst law
enforcement, prosecutors and the judiciary, the low priority afforded to
wildlife crime, and a lack of cooperation amongst law enforcement agencies (Sina et al, 2016).
Once again, the message for private firms and
financial institutions is that relying on the criminal justice system alone is
not enough to tackle the illegal pet trade.