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AM role in preventing illegal wildlife trade

Tom Hartley, Cutting-edge technology is being deployed to stop the illegal trafficking of Australian wildlife, ABC News, 8 July 2024

Forensic science is helping combat wildlife trafficking.(Tom Hartley). View video here.

Kangaroos found in India and cockatoos in Indonesia. Australia’s unique and unusual wildlife is showing up where it shouldn’t, as part of the $450 billion black market in animal trafficking.

  • In short: Wildlife trafficking is the fourth-largest organised crime globally, worth over $450 billion a year, according to the Wildlife Crime Research Hub.
  • It’s estimated thousands of Australian species are being traded internationally, with cockatoos and lizards particularly popular.
  • What’s next? Australian scientists have created tools to detect and trace wildlife being smuggled out of, and brought into, the country.


“Definitely, we’re a target,” says Professor Phill Cassey, director of the newly established Wildlife Crime Research Hub at Adelaide University.

“There’s a lot more Australian species being traded outside the country than we were originally aware of.”


These lizards packaged up in boxes were detected by Border Force.(Supplied: Australian Border Force).

The number of Australian species being traded internationally is estimated to be in the thousands.

Cockatoos and other native parrots have been especially popular, with a “prolific trade” identified in Asia.

Cockatoos are particularly popular on the international market.(Supplied: Dr George Olah).

“Historically, there’s been a demand for those charismatic, large-bodied birds — there’s a uniqueness and distinctness that makes them highly desirable,” Professor Cassey said.

“The harder they are to obtain, the more valuable they’re often considered.”

The most in-demand creatures internationally are reptiles. More than 170 Australian species have been detected in trade overseas.

However, many of them do not make it out of the country alive.

“The way they’re packaged is horrendous and really inhumane — taped up in gaffer tape, they can’t breathe, stuffed inside things,” said Dr Phoebe Meagher, from Taronga Conservation Society.

“Wherever they come from, they’re always in a really bad state”.

More than 100 lizards were found in parcels, chip packets and gift boxes at Australia Post sorting facilities over a four-month period at the end of last year.

Sydney’s Taronga Wildlife Hospital took in the survivors.

“Shingleback lizards and blue-tongue lizards are the most smuggled and trafficked species out of Australia,” Dr Meagher told 7.30.

Dr Phoebe Meagher and a colleague inspect a shingleback lizard at Taronga Wildlife Hospital. (ABC News: Jake Grant).

Shinglebacks are the only known monogamous reptile species in the world.

They can live for up to 50 years and develop enduring relationships during that time.

They’re considered extremely valuable when sold as a mated pair.

“The traders and smugglers presume some will die, that’s why they put out so many numbers,” Dr Meagher said.

“Often they do have to be euthanased if they’re carrying disease, or they’re in a really bad state with broken limbs or dehydration and won’t make a recovery.”

A suitcase found containing birds, bird eggs and reptiles is inspected at the Australian Museum. (Supplied: Australian Museum).

In one case in January, 257 lizards were seized in raids across Sydney, with an approximate value of $1.2 million.

It was alleged they’d been harvested from their native habitats by a high-level criminal syndicate with links to Hong Kong.

Deadly introductions

Professor Phill Cassey says more Australian species are being illegally traded “than we were originally aware of”. (ABC News).

It’s not only what’s going out, but what’s coming in, that’s of concern to authorities.

According to evidence seen by Professor Cassey from the Wildlife Crime Research Hub, around 75 species of foreign reptiles have been seized within Australia.

Some of those are more dangerous than the equivalent Australian species.

“The ones we see appearing most in the wild are the American corn snake and boa constrictor, but also leopard geckos and red-eared slider turtles,” he told 7.30. And then there’s the more curious creatures.

Pygmy marmosets are among the foreign species being illegally brought into Australia. (YouTube: Symbio Wildlife Park).

Pygmy marmosets, pygmy hedgehogs and chameleons are among the more unusual animals being bought and sold domestically.

A majority of those deals are said to take place in private online forums, chat groups and communities of specialist collectors.

The problem is considered so “massive”, Professor Cassey has pulled together a team of scientists to develop new ways to monitor and disrupt traffickers — alongside authorities around the world.

“Wildlife trafficking is the fourth-largest transnational organised crime — worth over $450 billion a year,” he said.

Red-eared slider turtles, which originate from the US and Mexico, have been found in the wild in Australia. (ABC News: Isabel Dayman).

“It’s commonly believed a lot of species are going to South East Asia and China. We do see that as a route but we’re also seeing considerable and increased demand through Europe.

“We see the demand for Australian wildlife being supplied locally by the breeders and the poachers, and in the middle of that are the coordinators and couriers that are linking that supply and demand, and there can be any number of links within that.”

The syndicates are complex, often described as unorganised-organised crime, and the ones who get caught are seldom at the top of the chain.

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