Organised crime and the global trade in exotic pets

DFAT blog-Paul Murphy photo

By Paul Murphy, Assistant Secretary, Wildlife Trade and Biosecurity Branch, Department of the Environment and Energy

The world is now connected in a way that was unimaginable when I was a kid. The extraordinary ability we now have to communicate has helped us make friends, build networks and trade with others across the globe.

It has also helped pave the way for an explosion in illegal trade in exotic pets. Billions of people across the world are now connected through various forms of social media. People can share pictures of themselves with a weird-looking lizard, or an adorable sugar-glider, and the desire for these pets can go viral.

DFAT blog-Shingleback lizard
Shingleback lizards are under threat from wildlife smugglers.  Image credit: Arthur Mostead

Illegal wildlife trade is fuelled by criminality and corruption, and it can be very lucrative. Valued at $7-$23 billion per year, it has attracted the involvement of transnational crime groups. These groups use drug and arms-smuggling networks to corrupt officials, falsify paperwork and smuggle exotic pets. Some of these groups use the proceeds of wildlife trafficking to fund other criminal activities, including terrorism. Wildlife trafficking also reduces sustainable development opportunities for communities. This illegal trade poses a risk to our environment, our security, and our prosperity.

Parrots, reptiles, and small mammals are all popular in the illegal pet trade. Earlier this year, an Australian man was arrested in Sydney and will soon be facing allegations for importing packages from Thailand that contained 200 animals, including Chinese turtles, alligator snapping turtles, snakehead fish, sugar-gliders, chameleons and stingrays. Six packages containing more than 40 native Australian shingleback lizards were also seized by investigators.

The sad fact is that most smuggled animals die in inhumane conditions before they get to their destination. Those that do make it often carry exotic diseases. If they escape or are set free in their new environment, they can out-compete the native wildlife and damage delicate eco-systems.

Illegal trade of wildlife
Wildlife are smuggled in inhumane conditions, and often die in transit. Image credit: Department of the Environment and Energy

The good news is that while the modern world’s interconnectedness has its drawbacks, it also brings many benefits. Just last month, for instance, my team and I worked with colleagues in New York to strengthen international commitments to tackle illegal wildlife trade. We also worked with our counterparts in Papua New Guinea on translating wildlife trade posters into the Motu language to help raise awareness about wildlife trade laws.

Australia is connected to a global community committed to combatting illegal wildlife trade. Advancements in communications technology help us to better share intelligence and conduct joint operations to catch the perpetrators of wildlife crimes.

We work with 181 other countries through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to protect our wildlife. As a G20 member, we agree to tackle corruption that supports wildlife trafficking. Australia, New Zealand and the United States train colleagues from our region in how to better regulate wildlife trade. We also participated in the 2016 Hanoi Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade, which brought people together, including Prince William, to raise awareness about wildlife trafficking, share expertise and cooperate to break the illegal trade business model. The forthcoming Foreign Policy White Paper will highlight the government’s commitment to working with international partners to combat transnational crimes, including illegal wildlife trade.

Paul Murphy is an Assistant Secretary in the Biodiversity and Conservation Division of the Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy. His branch is responsible for overseeing Australia’s implementation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the regulation of the export of native species and trade in live animals, and representing the Department on environmental biosecurity issues.

Paul has extensive experience as a senior natural resource manager in the Australian and NSW governments, with many of these years dedicated to fisheries management. Paul has spent the last four years leading the Wildlife and Biosecurity Branch, and before that worked on Indigenous and natural heritage for the Department from 2010 to 2013.

One thought on “Organised crime and the global trade in exotic pets

  1. Smuggling animals and birds is an abhorrent crime against nature and the environment, not to mention the poor things being smuggled – every time I see examples of this on programs like Border Security I shudder with disgust.

    I gained a lot of encouragement to see the measures being implemented to attempt to put a stop to this disgusting crime.


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