Wildlife Trafficking

A global conglomerate exploiting many for the profit of few

By Kate Beskeen, Zookeeper

The impacts in New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia

With the unique, and rare capturing adoration and attention from people no matter their background or societal status, and with so many animal products being promoted as medicinal miracles, it is no wonder wildlife are trafficked at high rates. The United Nations estimated that in 2016 alone, the illegal wildlife trade made between seven and twenty-three billion US dollars globally. Images that come to mind when the illegal wildlife trade is mentioned are those of ivory, elephant tusks and trophy hunters of Africa, however trade is affecting lesser-known species including plants and not just on a small scale, much closer to home than some realise.

It is the already endangered Wildlife, or not easily obtained, affected by this trade which means that those protecting species must keep locations unknown, and/or well secured. A season's worth of protection efforts, and a years’ worth of breeding for a species can be seen by some as profit well into the tens of thousands on the black market.

The Local Situation

In regards to Australia and New Zealand, the trafficking into the country is not insignificant but often on a smaller scale by comparison to global standards, with traders making profit on high prices for exotic animals. Often these traders may have the facilities and licensing to breed, trade and hold the monopoly on a species, making a tax-free profit very hard for authorities to track, let alone the police. With embargos stopping legal importation of exotic species, they remain hard to acquire and for some you can sell or purchase easily and legally for as much as 40,000NZD per individual. The benefits of new genetics to these isolated groups can mean a breeding pair or healthier larger animals are acquired, increasing profit margins which in turn allows for trafficking in the pet trade to continue.

Within Australia it is not uncommon for exotic animals to be found in drug raids. These animals are illegally kept as pets with many requiring very specific licensing to be held due to the biosecurity risks to the environment.

"In 2016 alone, the illegal wildlife trade made between $7 to 23 billion US dollars globally."

The risks these exotic animals pose to New Zealand are wide ranging. An example of this is beak and feather, a disease which affects parrots (Ha.H.J et.al,2011). It is already prevalent in both captive and wild populations elsewhere, with some individuals being asymptomatic carriers of this disease which can lead to mass die off.

New Zealand’s parrots are largely limited to isolated pockets and the introduction of such a contagion to these groups could lead to them disappearing entirely. Many will remember the algae Didymosphenia Geminate (Didymo), this species being first known in the Northern hemisphere but showed up in South Island waterways, and as it is believed to be an aggressive invasive species it triggered a massive biosecurity response.

Research since then has shown Didymo was likely all-ready present (NIWA Taihoro Nukurangi, 2014), but had it been an introduced species the worst-case scenario projected by the New Zealand herald in 2006, would have been a cost to the country of NZ$285m.

If you also think of your declarations coming through airport security, have you been in farmed areas? What is your trade and how have you cleaned the tools of your trade? With the illegal trade of live animals there is often no quarantine procedure. Plant seeds and birds’ eggs can be purchased online and sent by post. Often the purchase is legal, it is just the destination that is not and the source of the product is unknown as it may have been harvested directly from the wild, or reared in conditions promoting the kind of diseases that may cross to agriculture.

How and Why? Some Examples

It is not surprising that animal trafficking into New Zealand and Australia is on a smaller scale. Multiple sources view Vietnam and China as primary consumers, with over 159 different routes used to get animal product there. The two main reasons for consumption being for medicinal purposes and to elevate social status.

The common traffic method from New Zealand and Australia to other countries is by post. A federal report released in Australia 2020 described the seizure of thousands of dollars’ worth of juvenile lizards, which had been intercepted at an international distribution point for Australian post. The method used for the attempted smuggling was quite sophisticated in nature (from a smuggling perspective), where the animals were restrained to limit movement and stored in rice cookers.

Often animals found in such seizures are in such poor condition that even veterinary treatment cannot help them, and those that can be helped are not able to be released as there are captive diseases which may wipe out wild populations.

The attempted shipping manner is not unlike those described at times in press-releases following drug seizures at borders, again suggesting links between drug trafficking and wildlife trafficking.

A source that has had first hand experience in South East Asia (where boat and road vehicles are the main means of transport), says that there is evidence that the same routes, traders, and methods involved in the traffic of wildlife are likely those that deal in human and drug trafficking.