Ex-UN official appalled by NZ wildlife blunder

The dismantling of a New Zealand group which combatted wildlife crime has been described as “unfathomable” and a “blunder” by a former high-ranking international official.

The Wildlife Enforcement Group (WEG) consisted of an officer each from the Department of Conservation (DOC), Customs, and from what was the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries. 

DOC estimates the WEG were responsible for 21 successful prosecutions against 28 defendants while they were operating. Six of these were high-profile arrests of international poachers and smugglers attempting to take New Zealand’s protected geckos.

Since the group was disbanded in 2012, no gecko smugglers have been arrested, despite evidence suggesting smuggling is an ongoing problem.

No clear reason has been given for the disbanding and an Environmental Crime Network intended to replace the group never eventuated.

The former chief of enforcement for the United Nations-administered CITES Secretariat, John Sellar, responded to a Newsroom article about the group’s disbanding.

Sellar, a world expert on wildlife crime enforcement, said the decision to disband the group reflects poorly on New Zealand.

“I regularly used to hold WEG up as an example to the rest of the world. I find it utterly astonishing that it was disbanded and not replaced by some other equally-effective mechanism. The group, and its officials, were admired and respected throughout the international law enforcement community.”

Sellar worked with the group for many years and described the WEG officers as highly-trained and first-class, who were respected internationally for the work they did protecting New Zealand’s wildlife and their contribution to the international wildlife crime-fighting community.

WEG officers wrote manuals still in use by Interpol today and assisted overseas countries to create strategies to tackle crime in their own country.

“What was so bizarre, and also somewhat embarrassing, was that WEG was disbanded within a relatively short time of Interpol actively holding it up as a model.”

The group’s operating structure was used as an example of how a specialised team could be set up at a minimal cost. Documents obtained under the Official Information Act say after covering the salaries of the three staff, each of the three agencies contributed just $24,000 per year toward operating costs.

“I regularly used to find, in my interactions with senior law enforcement officials, politicians, or other decision-makers around the world, that encouragement to form multi-agency specialised units or task forces would be met with the response “We could not afford that”. WEG provided the first-rate illustration of how such a unit could be created with almost negligible extra cost.”

Interpol also cited the group, Sellar said.

“I wasn’t the only person to hold WEG up as an example - Interpol used to also. Indeed, it specifically described the management and operating protocols and practices of the group as a lesson for others to learn from.

“What was so bizarre, and also somewhat embarrassing, was that WEG was disbanded within a relatively short time of Interpol actively holding it up as a model.”

Until Newsroom’s story, the events surrounding the group's dismantling had not been made public. The information was obtained through Official Information Act requests, and with the help of an expert source who did not want to be named.

Sellar said it was unfortunate such law-enforcement decisions rarely receive public attention. As a UN official, he said he was diplomatically unable to question the disbanding when it occurred but is happy to speak about it since retiring from the role.   

“The members of WEG, as I understand it, were essentially prevented by their agencies’ internal rules from speaking out openly and I also heard rumours that one officer who did was warned by supervisors not to do so again.”

The three agencies formerly involved in the WEG have said they still investigate wildlife crime. DOC’s recent compliance strategy says intelligence which comes from Interpol will be investigated.

Previously WEG officers would gather overseas intelligence directly rather than wait for intelligence to come from other agencies. Sellar said a major part of the WEG’s role was gathering and analysing intelligence.  

“Claims that what WEG did is now handled by agencies collaborating in some other manner are, frankly, nonsense; from my perspective, at least. My contacts in the enforcement community also tell me that they see a gap which remains to be plugged.

“It may be too late to correct this blunder now but I sincerely hope that some equally-meaningful replacement will soon be established.”

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