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Living Lightly column

Illegal wildlife trade

By Alan Hewett

Our native wildlife is under threat from land clearing, feral animals and of course climate change. But there is a further danger, the illegal wildlife trade. This trade is estimated to be worth $24 billion worldwide, making it a very profitable criminal enterprise. Australia’s native reptiles and birds are particularly in demand. A black cockatoo can reach $30,000; a pair of lace monitors $100,000.

Native animals are captured for pets, displayed or killed for traditional medicine, ornaments and food. We should remember that the pandemics we have experienced in recent years have been caused by human interaction with ‘bush foods.’

A native animal taken from its natural environment causes it great stress. There is the risk of injury when animals are trapped and further harm when they are transported. Smugglers attach them to their bodies going through customs. Sometimes they are sent through the post or via freight. They are also secreted in various receptacles. If caught in the act, some smugglers have attempted to destroy the evidence, such as smashing bird’s eggs.

Australia is a signatory to the U. N’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). There are 34,000 species protected on this list. However, listings have increased illegal demand for certain species and there is little provision for enforcement.

Another problem is the export of native animals where there are false claims of the animal being ‘captive bred’. Within Australia there is a licensing system for capture and export of native animals, but it is often abused and exploited because of differing state regulations. There is also a serious lack of wildlife officers to apprehend and bring offenders to court. When they are found guilty the penalties are weak, usually token fines. A penalty of $30,000 was given for the theft of nineteen parrot eggs, which was half the black-market value.

Attempts are being made to create an international online database of genetic codes of thousands of species. DNA samples would help regulate the licensing system and check if an animal was illegally taken or bred.

There has to be a more concerted effort by governments to increase detection and conviction.  Penalties must be greatly increased. This trade not only threatens endangered animals and biodiversity, it threatens world health, encourages crime, corruption, violence and economic hardship.