Disbanding of NZ wildlife group paves way for poachers

Farah Hancock takes a look at the international lizard smuggling trade, and how disbanding a New Zealand wildlife protection group has opened the country's native species up to poachers 

Half a world away from the calm of New Zealand’s forests and the meeting rooms of slow-moving government agencies, a map of New Zealand is displayed for thousands to see. Marked on the map are the locations of New Zealand’s protected geckos.

The map is on show at the German fair Terrarstika, the biggest reptile fair in the world. Tables in the trade hall are piled high with plastic boxes containing lizards and snakes for sale. Hundreds of deals are done at the fair, some openly in the trade hall, others surreptitiously in the carpark.

There is an underbelly to the reptile trade and an expert source says New Zealand’s protected geckos are squarely in the sights of corrupt overseas dealers.

“Anything that is a little rare won’t be on the tables on display. That will be in the boot of someone’s car in the carpark and the deal will be done out there. What you see on the tables when you go into those fairs are all the legitimate stuff that anyone can trade in. The hot stuff is not on display, it’s elsewhere.”

The source, who does not want to be named, said New Zealand used to have a successful group dedicated to catching smugglers. The Wildlife Enforcement Group (WEG), disbanded in 2012 to the bewilderment of many, has not been replaced.

“It’s just crazy. Now we’ve got nothing.”

When asked by email if poachers know the group is no longer functioning, the source’s reply comes punctuated with a laughing emoticon.

“Of course they know.”

The poaching problem

Three quarters of New Zealand’s reptile species are at risk of extinction. Habitat loss and predators play a part in this. Poachers add further pressure.

Our protected green geckos are particularly attractive to collectors. They are brightly coloured, active during the day and have live young, making them unique in the lizard world.

Poachers target pregnant females and this can have devastating effects on fragmented gecko populations. In monitored sites one population dropped by 95 percent. Another lost almost half of its breeding-aged females in one theft. 

To date, officially there have been 68 reptiles found on smugglers since 2009 but the real number of smuggled reptiles is likely higher.

But identifying that number is tricky, said former Environmental Defence Society’s senior policy analyst Dr Marie Brown.

“It’s a bit of a silenced, concealed loss because of the lack of compliance monitoring.”

Brown recently published a report looking at issues around New Zealand’s environmental law. She said poachers are profiting at the expense of New Zealand’s natural heritage.

“A lot of people will tell you that wildlife crime does not constitute a significant impact on wildlife diversity, they’ll say if you’re going to put your resources in, put it into pest control, but we’re haemorrhaging biodiversity.”

In order to catch smugglers, resources need to be prioritised, she said.  

“Some of this stuff is run by international gangs, it’s pretty high-level stuff and some of it is some European backpacker in a camper cruising around and collecting lizards.

“He needs to have surveillance put on him. The police need to be involved and you need to catch him in the act of removing the material from the protected area. There are all these things that need to be done and that’s a big job.”

Brown said she would expect a country like New Zealand to have a unit devoted to wildlife crime.

“Given the fact we are a major through-port for trafficking of wildlife and we’re also quite vulnerable to it because of our beautiful lizards, it is a surprise to me it is not seen as a higher priority and that resources are not allocated.  I think plenty of similar first-world countries would have dedicated units where we don’t.”

The poaching continues

Since New Zealand’s dedicated wildlife crime unit, the WEG, was disbanded there have been several publicised poaching incidents.

Two gecko thefts in 2017 got attention: one, of a lone Marlborough gecko from a terrarium outside a Department of Conservation (DOC) Fiordland visitor centre; the other, a grisly discovery of 58 gecko and skinks stuffed into a lunchbox in the Christchurch Gardens. Only four of the animals were alive. The find, according to the source, was likely a failed smuggling attempt. Neither crime has been solved.

In 2016, an official from the German Federal Nature Protection Office, an agency similar to DOC, told German media in March they were performing checks at the Terrarstika fair based on a tip from New Zealand.  

In the same year a response from DOC to a government select committee mentions poachers from Germany and Spain have travelled to New Zealand and illegally removed geckos since 2010.

New Zealand’s last successful prosecution of a gecko smuggler was in 2012. Since the WEG was disbanded there have been no prosecutions.

New Zealand's protected green geckos are particularly attractive to collectors because they are brightly coloured, active during the day and have live young, making them unique in the lizard world. Photo: Farah Hancock 

What the wildlife enforcers did

The WEG, consisting of an officer each from the DOC, Customs, and from what used to be called the Ministry for Agriculture and Fishery (MAF), gathered overseas intelligence and investigated suspicious visitors to New Zealand.

The group was internationally recognised. With just three officers coordinating appropriate agency staff, they brought 21 flora and fauna smuggling or crime cases agains before New Zealand courts. These ranged from people smuggling parrot eggs into New Zealand, to people smuggling New Zealand native orchids to the Czech Republic.

From 2009 to 2011 six individuals were convicted of gecko smuggling, based on successful operations by the group. From Hans Kubus who was caught in 2009 with his underpants full of lizards, to a trio including two poachers and a smuggler who tried to smuggle 16 jewelled geckos out of the country.

All of this was done at a low cost. According to documents received under the Official Information Act, after the salaries of the three officers were covered, each agency contributed just $24,000 per year towards operating costs.   

Over 22 years of operation WEG developed intelligence contacts overseas, and had streamlined how each agency responded when suspicious people entered the country.

Coordinating the three agencies was no small feat. From the outset, the alliance was unbalanced. Wildlife protection is a task which falls in DOC’s lap. Border control is the function of Customs and MAF. Due to resource issues within DOC, two staff members of WEG were supplied from Customs, one representing Customs, and the other seconded to DOC. Administrative elements, too, fell to Customs which housed the team and provided vehicles and support.

Despite the unbalanced alliance, WEG functioned successfully. Death for the group, when it came, came in the form of a thousand paper cuts.

What happened to the wildlife enforcers

Ask the three agencies why WEG was disbanded and the answer ranges from a vague, “a whole bunch of reasons at that point in time” to a curt instruction to make a request under the Official Information Act. 

The paper trail the Official Information Act request unearths shows a drawn-out process.

By 2012 key WEG staff had been moved on and leadership within the group was lacking. It is unclear why these staff were moved on and why; instead of addressing leadership issues, travel and resources were reduced. Where the investigators once had a car each to use, two of these were removed leaving the three staff to share a vehicle. “The WEG group are to resolve practicalities around such a roster,” meeting notes read. All carparks were removed. If the team member could not find a carpark at Customs offices, they could use a Wilson’s park.

At the same time resources were being removed, there was a push to expand WEG’s remit to encompass environmental crime as well as wildlife crime. The new crimes to be covered include pollution, illegal fishing, climate change offending, illegal logging, natural resource theft and biosecurity.

Three reports followed, looking at how this could be done. The first suggests if a manager was to be hired the group could take on the additional responsibility. This report suggested the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) could be the lead agency.

The second suggests a new group called the Environmental Crime Network could be established consisting of current WEG staff if an additional investigator was hired by DOC. The launch date it recommended was July 2013.

A final report suggested the investigators no longer be housed together at Customs, but be moved to their respective agencies and ‘virtually hub’ with each other. The recommended launch date was September 2014. The report solved the car parking dilemma by noting the final vehicle could be removed from the team.

In October 2013, the Natural Heritage Protection Bill was heard in Parliament for the third time. The bill increased penalties for poaching and smuggling. Introduced by National’s Jacqui Dean, it was inspired by the spate of gecko thefts the WEG had uncovered.

In the third reading she said: “The Department of Conservation, through the Wildlife Enforcement Group, has had some really good success. It is monitoring the international market and working with the Customs Service, which has resulted in seven foreign nationals being convicted of smuggling-related offences in the last three years. That is a good news story.”

However, the news for WEG was not good.

In fact, it is not clear if they even existed when Dean made her speech.

The final car park dilemma-solving report, dated June 2013, is where the WEG paper trail fizzles out. MPI and DOC confirm the group was formally disbanded. Documents covering the final decision to dismantle the group were either not supplied, or do not exist.

Now there is no WEG and there is no Environmental Crime Network. The wildlife enforcers have either retired, or are working in different roles.

What happens now

The agencies involved say they never stopped fighting wildlife crime. In responses to Official Information Act requests, MPI say they focused investigative resource back in to areas they were directly responsible for. Customs say a working relationship still exists between the agencies, the only difference being they “no longer have dedicated Wildlife Enforcement Group investigators”.

DOC’s national compliance manager, Darryl Lew, did agree to an interview.

With halting, carefully-chosen words he describes the current situation saying, “each agency deals with it as part of their normal investigation procedures back at home bases”.

Missing though is an agreed memorandum of understanding between the three agencies. During WEG’s time there was one in place; however, in 2011 it was agreed it needed to be reviewed.

Six years on and Lew says the agencies are in the “throes” of working one out.

“We’ve had a number of meetings and we’re having the final one in December where we are formally agreeing via a memorandum of understanding with Customs, MPI and DOC the arrangements to ensure that the types of things that WEG was doing remain in place.”

When asked if the lack of a memorandum of understanding between the agencies has caused any issues since WEG has been disbanded, Lew again seems to consider his answer. 

“I have been in the role for 12 months, and in that 12 months not to my knowledge.”

Lew’s work during his year in the role has been centred around creating DOC’s first compliance strategy. It places a priority on wildlife crime.

“We’ve strengthened our compliance function, we understand, and actually accept and acknowledge that we are lead agency for wildlife crime rather than perhaps relying on our partnership with Customs and MPI for them to be that for us. We’re standing up on that issue and taking ownership of it and are devoting the resourcing, and the time and capability to make sure we fulfil that role.”

Lew says there are nine full-time compliance staff and 361 rangers who have a part-time compliance function. The rangers, he said, can provide a monitoring function.

Intelligence though, appears to be coming from overseas. The strategy says DOC will work with other intelligence agencies, such as Interpol, and will “undertake proactive investigations when information and intelligence is received on such matters”.

This differs significantly from the way WEG worked. The expert source says officers travelled overseas to gain intelligence directly rather than wait and hope for intelligence to come to them.

Making sure smugglers are caught before geckos leave the country was critical, the source said.

“Once the animals leave New Zealand, they’re lost. There’s virtually no hope of ever being able to do much.”

The problem with permits

At fairs such as Terrarstika, there are some seemingly legal trades of New Zealand geckos. The geckos for sale, mainly Northland and Auckland geckos, may come with papers saying they are the captive-bred offspring of a small number of geckos legally exported before 1981.

New Zealand herpetologists are sceptical of the claims, saying the number of geckos supposedly bred in captivity exceed the breeding capabilities of the legally-exported geckos. They also say there would be an issue of inbreeding with such a small population.

There have been important changes made to CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – which should help reduce the smuggled gecko trade.

New Zealand geckos are now listed as Appendix II, meaning documentation must be provided when exporting them, and a recent resolution now requires proof the parents of the captive-bred geckos were legally obtained.

While these changes are positive for protecting New Zealand’s geckos there are questions about the accuracy of the documents. The expert source says there is often not enough scrutiny of the evidence supplied to obtain the documents.

“The people who are exporting our animals from Europe to the likes Japan and USA out of Europe are not being asked to prove the history of the animals. The permits are just being issued.

“The hard questions about the source of the animals are not being asked.”

On the frontlines

Independent herpetologist Dr Marieke Lettink has been working with New Zealand lizards since WEG was operating.

She has seen first-hand the effect poaching can have on reptile populations.

“There are poachers coming into New Zealand every year to collect animals. We did have a Wildlife Enforcement Group which we no longer have. They collected information about suspicious individuals. Sometimes you might have a watch put on certain suspicious people that come into the country.

“There are people that come into the country they have a bit of information on, but at the moment we don’t really have the resources to do that job properly.”

When the lunchbox of lizards was found in the Christchurch Gardens, one month before the Terrarstika quarterly fair, Lettink was in the field on the West Coast. Her colleagues helped DOC with the find.

Lettink has three wishes.

The first is for New Zealanders doing conservation work with geckos and skinks to be careful with the information they share. Descriptions of populations, and location data hidden in photographs can be a goldmine for poachers.

Secondly, she would like to see the penalties for poaching increased.

Her final wish is simple. 

“I would like to actually see a reestablishment of the Wildlife Enforcement Group.”

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