Reptile cruelty is ‘thin edge of a very thick wedge’ in illegal wildlife trade

Here’s what you need to know and why you should care, a lot.
By Justin Meneguzzi November 25, 2021 Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page

A Melbourne wildlife keeper has been convicted of animal cruelty and sentenced to a 12-month Community Corrections Order. But, according to Operation Sheffield, a joint national and state wildlife trafficking investigation, his case represents the thin edge of a very thick wedge.

The keeper, who operated Arcadia Reptile and Bird Australia in Werribee, was sentenced in the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court on 15 November 2021 on charges of failing to care to for his collection of more than 200 reptiles. The charges also included a failure to maintain accurate records of the reptiles in his possession, a requirement of his wildlife license.

The keeper admitted that much of the wildlife in his possession – which included shingleback lizards, black-headed monitors, and eastern blue tongued lizards – had been illegally taken from the wild.

Officers from the Victorian Conservation Regulator executed a search warrant at his Melbourne home in 2019 and discovered a collection of more than 200 reptiles in his garage. They uncovered dead and severely injured reptiles held in inadequate and uncleaned enclosures, without proper access to food, water or veterinary treatment.

Among the animals seized was a shingleback lizard suffering facial necrosis so severe it needed to be euthanised. An autopsy later found the animal was pregnant with two young.

The raid was part of a joint wildlife trafficking investigation named Operation Sheffield, a multi-departmental collaboration between Australian Border Force, the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment, Australia Post, RSPCA Victoria and Conservation Regulator Victoria.

“This conviction should serve as a reminder of the sad reality of wildlife crime. Once an animal is taken from the wild it cannot be returned because of disease and welfare risks, so it is important to source animals legally and properly care for them,” said Chief Conservation Regulator, Kate Gavens.

To date five people have been linked to Operation Sheffield. In 2019, a Taiwanese man was for jailed for six months for trafficking hundreds of Australian animals to Hong Kong. The Melbourne keeper was not charged with wildlife trafficking offences, but he did admit to providing the Taiwanese man with up to 50 reptiles in 2019. He said he was not aware at the time that the latter intended to traffic the animals out of Australia.  

In her sentencing remarks, Magistrate Julie Grainger noted the keeper’s offending would normally be punishable by jail but handed down a reduced sentence after considering his poor mental health, loss of business and relationships, and early guilty plea.

The keeper will now serve a 12-month Community Corrections Order, which will require him to undergo medical assessment and treatment, and to perform 100 hours of unpaid community work.

Related: Wildlife CSI

Fuelling the illegal pet trade

It’s estimated each year hundreds of native reptiles are smuggled out of the country by mail to overseas pet markets in Germany, Japan and the United States, where Australia’s native reptiles are highly sought after for their rarity and unique traits. Of Australia’s nearly 900 native reptile species, more than 90 per cent aren’t found anywhere else.

According to data from the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment, nearly 90 per cent of all animals seized by authorities between 2018 and 2019 were reptiles.

Australian law prohibits the export of live native animals, except in very limited circumstances that require a special permit, and the penalties for trafficking wildlife can be substantial. Under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the maximum penalty for a wildlife trade offence is 10 years imprisonment or $210,000 for an individual.

“We regularly see seizures of animals being smuggled out of the country and the cruelty involved is appalling,” said Nicola Beynons from Humane Society International, who noted that courts are increasingly recognising the seriousness of wildlife crime when it comes to sentencing offenders.

“In the past, Humane Society International has been annoyed that the judiciary has tended to penalise at the lower end of what is available, and the prosecuting authorities no doubt share these frustrations. We do see that changing as awareness grows of the seriousness of the problem for conservation, animal welfare and biosecurity. The six-month jail sentence in 2019 for a reptile smuggler was very welcome.”

To meet demand from overseas reptile collectors, poachers will take reptiles from the wild or steal from the collections of pet owners. The animals are then concealed inside objects such as rice cookers, DVD players, shoes and toys, and trafficked out of the country through the mail. To help avoid detection, their arms and legs will be bound with tape, and in more extreme cases, they can be wrapped in playdough or extension cords to restrict their movement.

With limited air and no access to food and water, many don’t survive the journey or are so traumatised by the experience they need to be euthanised. A single reptile can sell for thousands in overseas markets, meaning only a small number need to survive for the trade to be profitable.

The Conservation Regulator has continued its focus on wildlife crime, recently launching the Break the Chain campaign with Crime Stoppers Victoria and Agriculture Victoria. Anyone with information about wildlife crime is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or www.crimestoppersvic.com.au.

For an in-depth look at Australia’s illegal wildlife trade pick up a copy of Australian Geographic Issue 166, on sale 3 January 2022.