Native green tree pythons (Morelia viridis) can sell for $2000-10,000 on the black market. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Australia's wildlife blackmarket trade

  • BY Carolyn Barry |
  • August 16, 2011

A surprising variety of endangered Australian wildlife is up for grabs on the black market.

HE DIDN'T THINK he was doing anything wrong; it seemed a harmless act. When, in 2008, wildlife officers from the WA Department of Environment and Conservation came knocking at his house, the man was surprised to see them - not because the game was up, but because he didn't realise he'd broken any laws. The wildlife officers were following up on a tip from someone who'd spotted him swiping a chick from an endangered black cockatoo's nest hollow, high in a nearby salmon gum tree.

"He literally didn't think he was doing the wrong thing," says Nicole White, a conservation scientist studying black cockatoos at Perth's Murdoch University who identified the bird species. "He was saying: 'There are plenty of them around. Why can't I have one?'."

Then the officers heard squawking coming from the neighbour's yard where, upon investigating, they found a further 14 red-tailed black cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus banksii), Carnaby's cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus latirostris) and galahs - most of which require a licence. The neighbour was caught red-handed illegally possessing birds.

Wildlife theft is a massive, complex and nebulous beast. It ranges from individuals taking the odd bird as a pet, through to organised trafficking by international crime syndicates. Experts have no firm grasp on the size of the problem, but they are certain it poses risks to biodiversity. Although poaching in itself, doesn't seem to be directly threatening any Australian species with extinction, it "has the potential to severely affect the  sustainability of wild populations", says David O'Sullivan of Customs and Border Protection in Canberra. "The Australian Government takes the illegal trade of wildlife in Australia very seriously."

Wildlife blackmarket a multi-billion dollar business

Our unique flora and fauna are especially prized overseas. Lizards, reptiles and birds - such as parrots - are popular trophies, destined mostly for the USA, Japan and Europe, where collectors will pay big sums. Australia's seven black cockatoo species are highly sought after, with some individual birds fetching up to $30,000.

And where there's big demand, there are big profits. According to a report released in February 2011 by the not-for-profit Global Financial Integrity organisation, the illegal wildlife trade is third only to that in drugs and human trafficking in scope and value; numbers in the order of tens of billions of dollars are bandied about, but the true value has not been quantified. "We've never put a figure on it," says John Scanlon, an Australian who is secretary-general of the UN's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), based in Geneva. "We know it's a multi-billion dollar business, but we've never had the research to have enough confidence in a figure."

Much of the global trade in endangered species is accounted for by tourist souvenirs, traditional medicine and bushmeat, John says, but live animals are the most lucrative. Like any collector's market, rare and unusual forms are the most valuable, meaning that the most endangered species are also the most highly prized. But profit margins are "impossible to summarise", he says. "Depending upon the form of wildlife, they can be huge. We've known of a single falcon selling for $200,000."

In Australia, Customs and Border Protection is the primary authority that detects and monitors the wildlife trade and enforces the law at the borders. In the 2009-10 financial year, customs seized plants or animals and their products on 4014 occasions - but whether that represents a small or large fraction of all smuggling attempts is unknown.

The majority of items are souvenirs confiscated from holidaymakers who are oblivious to the problem, David says. A smaller number of live animals are smuggled via the "extremely inhumane" organised trade, he says.

Our native animals tend to be exported live, with all the associated problems of smuggling living, breathing, moving creatures. It's one reason that reptiles and snakes are preferred contraband; they are resilient and quiet.

In fact, the younger the better - bird and reptile eggs are small and easy to transport. Animals or eggs can be strapped against the body of a smuggler, hidden in luggage, or even mailed through the post. Customs has found spiders in film canisters, pythons in garden pots, birds stuffed in plastic tubes, lizards stitched into luggage, and eggs fitted in purpose-built vests (up to 50 eggs, in one case).

These distressing methods of transport can cause animals to become dehydrated, starve or die a slow death. And if smugglers think they've been caught, they may cruelly "kill or destroy their specimens in an attempt to escape detection and prosecution", David says. In 2006, customs apprehended a man smuggling 24 cockatoo and galah eggs onto a plane. Before they could stop him, he smashed all but two of the eggs, which were hidden in a purpose-built vest.  

While some intercepted animals make it to zoos or wildlife centres, many have to be euthanased because of their poor condition or biological threat they pose. Even native species will be destroyed if their original habitat can't be determined, says Keith Larner, a wildlife compliance officer in Victoria's Department of Sustainability and Environment. "We don't know what diseases they've been exposed to, so we're reluctant to take them back to a wild population." Another problem is the mixing of genes between isolated populations of a species. "We prefer animals go back to the exact spot so we don't contaminate the gene pool," he says.


A Major Mitchell cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri), highly sought after on the black market, fetching up to $15,000. It is on the CITES Appendix II list. (Credit: Getty Images) 

Regulations to stop illegal wildlife trade

Australia, like all 175 signatories, is bound by CITES regulations. The international body, established in 1975, manages the global lists of flora and fauna that can be traded, and under what conditions.

Member nations are responsible for determining which species are permitted to leave their borders by adding them to the Appendix I list (risk of extinction if trade is allowed) or the Appendix II list (unregulated trade could threaten survival) or the Appendix III list (the species is protected in at least one country). Permits are needed for these species - even for zoos and researchers - and only issued under strict conditions where science shows that trading sustainable numbers of individuals won't threaten their survival.

About 34,000 species are protected by CITES. Globally, 600 animals are listed on Appendix I and a further 4400 on Appendix II. In Australia, 67 types of plant and animal - such as orange-bellied parrots and dugongs - are on Appendix I, and 958 - such as Carnaby's cockatoos and echidnas - are on Appendix II.

Australia is particularly strict, banning the export of all live native animals for commercial trade. In fact, just six native bird species can legally be taken out of the country at all, and even then only as pets when they are accompanied by the owner. Other live species are permitted, under special circumstances, to be exported for specific research or zoo purposes.

Within our borders, responsibility for licensing systems lies with the federal environment department, as well as each State. The number of permits issued a year, for captive-bred and wild animals, ranges from about 400 in Tasmania to more than 13,000 in Victoria.

Permit holders - typically breeders, zoos or pet shops - must show authorities they are qualified to care for the animals and keep detailed records of births and deaths in a logbook. But discrepancies between States can cause confusion. "Some people aren't aware what they should and shouldn't be doing because of the difference in laws," says Dr Samantha Bricknell, a biologist and expert on environmental crime from the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) in Canberra.  But other people are fully aware of what they are doing, says Keith Larner: "Of the people I've caught, 70 per cent have a licence to keep native wildlife and they know they're doing wrong."

Called 'leaving the book open', tampering with logbooks is a common method for laundering wildlife. Permit holders sometimes head to the bush to replace a legitimate animal that died, or pretend the wild animal was bred in captivity, Keith says. Differing wildlife laws can also open up loopholes for smugglers to cross borders with species that aren't protected in the next State.

There's only a handful of dedicated wildlife officers in each State, and they have to check on thousands of permit holders. "Each department only has finite resources, so we try to be very strategic, basing our investigations on intelligence," Keith says.

Because of the vast and complex nature of the trade, enforcement comes under many jurisdictions and collaboration is needed to crack cases. "We work very closely with other agencies," he says. These include the police, State and Federal environment departments, interstate wildlife officers, Customs, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, and occasionally international authorities. 

Fines not high enough to deter blackmarket

While there are thousands of permit infringements and seizures each year, only a trickle make it to court, typically as few as a dozen cases; even then the punishments can be feeble. Under federal law, offenders can be fined up to $110,000 and get 10 years in prison. But across the States, penalties vary wildly, from $220,000 and two years' jail in NSW and Queensland, to just $10,000 and no jail time in Tasmania and WA.

About 70 per cent of the time, fines alone are handed out. These "are usually much less than the value of the wildlife goods on the international black market [and] provide little deterrent to criminals", according to a 2008 University of Canberra report. But often, says AIC's Samantha, this is because the charges relate to minor offences, such as permit infringements. One of the largest fines handed down - $30,000 for the attempted export in 1998 of 19 parrot eggs - was only half of their black-market value.

Part of the problem is that "most environmental crimes are heard in a magistrate's court where they don't really understand environmental harm," Samantha says. "Fines are nowhere near the maximum penalty set." Another barrier to successful prosecution lies in the need for scientific evidence. A species must be proved to be both native and protected under State or Federal laws.

Animal forensics - keeping track of world's species

Wildlife forensics is an emerging tool providing that proof, but this highly specialised field is only practised in a few museums and small, university-based laboratories. To profile and identify a species, DNA is extracted from the animal or suspected contraband material - such as bone, eggshell, feathers or other tissue - and compared with the DNA of known species. This is often done using GenBank, an international online database of genetic codes from thousands of species. But GenBank has its limitations.

"For some taxa, it's very incomplete -  we've got big holes in it," says Dr Michael Bunce, a wildlife forensics scientist at Murdoch University. "To label something as a species, you need to be able to exclude related species around it." This is difficult when perhaps only 10-20 per cent of reptiles and 50 per cent of birds are represented, he says. As a next step, scientists can take DNA samples from specimens in museum collections - the Australian Museum has more than 18 million specimens collected over 175 years - but this is time-consuming and expensive work.

DNA's real power, though, is in helping to regulate the licensing system by ensuring species recorded in logbooks are legitimate. Nicole has spent the past four years of her PhD project collecting DNA from Carnaby's cockatoo chicks (Calyptorhynchus latirostris) to develop a world-first provenance database. "It's a species that is regularly poached and traded. So there was a need for urgent action and a need for using DNA to answer questions that traditional field ecology couldn't answer," she says. "Previously, if a wildlife officer was suspicious of someone, and we didn't have the DNA...they were virtually powerless in proving that that animal held by that person was illegally taken or illegally bred."

The database, which also includes other black cockatoo types, can be used for identifying species or evaluating parentage. Nicole can even determine whether a bird is wild or captive, and the rough location it came from. After the 2008 Morawa raid authorities used Nicole's database to confirm the species of cockatoos illegally held by both the man and his neighbour. This led to a successful prosecution and a fine of $4500.

This painstaking work is yet to be reproduced, and it will be a long time before databases exist for other animals. Authorities are considering DNA sampling every animal for which owners seek a licence, but this must be legislated. "If we integrate some of the sampling into the licensing procedure, we could really make some good inroads into better policing," Michael says. In the meantime, wildlife officers and customs officials need to continue to negotiate the many complex challenges of protecting our native species.

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In an article titled "Rogue Traders" published by Australian Geographic, it was stated that Mr Herbert Kenyon had been prosecuted for illegally trading in Red tailed black cockatoos and White-tailed black cockatoos. We have been advised by Mr Kenyon that he has never been prosecuted for trading in such cockatoos and Australian Geographic apologises to Mr Kenyon for the publication of the allegation and any hurt that he may have suffered as a result.