April 21 - 27, 2024: Issue 622


Another Wildlife Trafficker Sentenced To Imprisonment In Sydney: World-First Technology Developed To Detect Wildlife Trafficking

On April 12 2024 Mr Bichuan Zhang was sentenced to two years and four months in jail, with a non-parole period of one year and two months, for attempting to post 43 reptiles from Australia to Hong Kong in seven separate parcels.

The 33-year-old man, a Chinese national, was found guilty of five counts of attempting to export 43 Australian lizards (including blue-tongue skinks, shingleback skinks and eastern water dragons) from post offices in Sydney and Wollongong between December 2023 and January 2024.

The reptiles were found concealed in plastic containers, tied inside socks and surrounded by plastic children’s toys. Some were inserted into rubber toy animals.

The animals were restrained in their own filth without access to water or food.

Mr Zhang was arrested as part of Operation Maxima, an international investigation led by the Environmental Crime Team in the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) who worked with authorities in Hong Kong.

Exporting Australian wildlife is a serious offence under Australia’s national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Each offence has a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment and fines of up to $313,000 or both.

Wildlife crime is a global problem increasingly recognised as a specialised area of organised crime requiring coordinated domestic and international enforcement.

DCCEEW’s Compliance and Enforcement Branch is committed to disrupting and exposing the organised crime syndicates responsible for coordinating the exports and imports of live animals.

DCCEEW works closely with other Australian Government agencies and state regulators, including the Australian Federal Police, Australia Post, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, Australian Border Force and state police, on these activities.

Minister for the Environment and Water, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP stated:

“This sentence sends a warning to anyone out there thinking of getting involved in wildlife crime: we are watching, you will be arrested, and you could go to jail.

“Our unique animals are highly valued overseas. They are vulnerable to wildlife trafficking and deserve the strongest protection from wildlife traffickers and this cruel trade.

“The Albanese Labor Government is determined to make sure that this is the case. And that is why we have dedicated specialist investigators who work domestically and internationally to eradicate these transnational organised crime groups.

“People who trade in animals in this way are cruel and selfish, and I’ll do whatever I can to make sure they cop the full force of the law.”

This recent judgement is one of several that have occurred in recent years.

Between May and December of 2023, 8 people had been charged with wildlife trafficking offences, of which 7 offenders were currently before the court and one had been sentenced to 12 month imprisonment. In November 2023 another offender was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment for a matter dating back to 2019.

On January 8th 2024 NSW Police stated Raptor Squad detectives had dismantled a criminal syndicate allegedly attempting to export over $1m worth of Australian native lizards and reptiles to Hong Kong.

Strike Force Whyaratta was established in September 2023 by State Crime Command's Raptor Squad - with assistance from the Federal Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water and NSW Department of Planning and Environment – to investigate illegal native animal and reptile exports after nine packages containing 59 live lizards were intercepted on their way to Hong Kong.

Following extensive inquiries, about 7.30am on Wednesday 20 December 2023, strike force officers executed a search warrant at an address in Pendle Hill where they arrested a 41-year-old woman. She was taken to Granville Police Station, where she was charged with six counts of export regulated native specimen without permit/exemption and granted conditional bail to appear before Parramatta Local Court on Tuesday 23 January 2024.

About 2.05pm on Thursday 28 December 2023, strike force officers executed a search warrant in Pendle Hill where they arrested a 54-year-old man. He was taken to Granville Police Station, where he was charged with four counts of export regulated native specimen without permit/exemption, deal with property proceeds of crime

The man was refused bail and appeared in Parramatta Local Court on Friday 29 December 2023, where he was granted conditional bail to reappear at the same court on Tuesday 16 January 2024.

During subsequent search warrants in Pendle Hill, police located 16 native lizards and eggs in a box addressed to Hong Kong. A further 60 native lizards were located in a storage room.

About 1.30pm on Friday 29 December 2023, strike force officers stopped a vehicle in Panania and arrested the driver – a 59-year-old man. He was taken to Bankstown Police Station, where he was charged with 13 offences, including knowingly direct activities of criminal group, one count of export regulated native specimen without permit/exemption, 11 counts of attempt to export regulated native specimen without permit/exemption, and deal with property proceeds of crime

The man was refused bail and appeared before Parramatta Local Court on Saturday 30 December 2023, where he was formally refused bail to appear at Wyong Local Court on Wednesday 17 January 2024.

During a subsequent search warrant of an address in East Hills police located 118 lizards, three snakes, 8 eggs and 25 deceased lizards.

About 3.40pm on Friday 5 January 2024, strike force officers arrested a 31-year-old man in East Hills. He was taken to Bankstown Police Station where he was charged with deal in or attempt to deal in protected animal, deal with property proceeds of crime

During a subsequent search of a property in Grenfell, police located an additional four lizards hidden in bags.

The man was refused bail and appeared in Parramatta Local Court on Saturday 6 January 2024.

Police would allege in court the criminal group were catching live lizards and native Australian reptiles to export for profit to Hong Kong. The animals were kept in poor conditions and bound in small containers when they were packaged to be sent.

Over the course of the investigation – during both search warrants and package intercepts – officers located 257 lizards, which were taken to various zoos and wildlife parks for examination by a vet before being released back to the wild.

Based on an average of $5000 per lizard, the total value of reptiles seized by police is approximately $1.2m.

On February 20th 2021 Then Minister for the Environment the Hon. Sussan Ley MP announced the sentencing of a 33-year-old man to five years in prison and a 30-year-old woman to a two-year intensive corrections order in the NSW District Court.

In that instance a Mr Zheyuan Qiu and Ms Ut Lei Lei attempted to smuggle 17 packages containing 45 native reptiles through the post to Hong Kong and Taiwan while also illegally holding species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and regulated natives at their residence.

Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley welcomed the sentences, which followed a two-year investigation by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment into criminal syndicates involved in the smuggling of Australian native wildlife.

“This sentence sends a message to wildlife smugglers: you will be caught, you will be punished,” Minister Ley said in 2021

“The details of this case are horrendous and unfortunately all too common. Since October 2019, there have been six sentences for wildlife trafficking, totalling more than 10 years in jail time.

“Native Australian reptiles are highly sought after overseas in what is a dangerously lucrative market supplying ventures such as overseas pet shops that exclusively sell Australian reptiles.”

Australian Border Force officers seized and detected several parcels bound for overseas addresses in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The two offenders attempted to export a range of reptiles including Shingleback and Blue-tongue lizards, a Red-bellied black snake, carpet and diamond pythons as well as two species of turtles.

The court noted the grave seriousness of the matter was reflected in the penalty applied given the undue cruelty with which the animals were kept and handled. The reptiles were bound by items such as black stockings and concealed in speakers, toys and other household items.

Assistant Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs Jason Wood said wildlife crime is a global problem that requires coordinated domestic and international enforcement capabilities to disrupt.

“Wildlife crime has transformed into one of the largest transnational organised criminal activities in the East Asia and Pacific region, generating an estimated $25 billion annually,” Minister Wood said.

“A collaborative approach with our international law enforcement partners has led to increased detections and prosecutions of the criminal syndicates behind this callous enterprise.”

Qiu and Lei Lei were arrested by Environmental Crime Investigators on 23 January 2020 after a search warrant was executed at their Belmore address where a further 205 reptiles, including lizards, snakes and turtles were found.

Their case followed the sentencing in 2020 of a 26-year-old man to three years jail for similar wildlife smuggling offences.

Upping The Ante To Fight Wildlife Smuggling

On December 21 2023 the Australian and New South Wales governments announced they are using world leading technology to crack down on the global illegal trade of native plants and animals.

The team at Taronga Zoo, in partnership with the University of New South Wales, University of Technology Sydney, and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation have developed a hand-held x-ray scanner, called the pXRF, that can detect if native reptiles have been bred in captivity or taken from the wild. 

Some of those engaged in this trade attempt to waylay charges by stating they have been bred in captivity.

As this technology develops, Taronga hopes to be able to pinpoint where wild-caught lizards are taken from so that they can be returned to their homes.

The Australian Government’s specialist Environmental Crime Section leads Australia’s efforts to detect and disrupt wildlife crime and works closely with the Australian Federal Police, Australian Border Force, the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry, state and territory police services and environment agencies, as well as international agencies.

As this type of cruel crime continues to grow, the federal and state governments have boosted efforts to combat it more rapidly and effectively, while also better caring for the species at the centre of these schemes. Teams have recently been established in Sydney and Melbourne, enabling them to join forces with the Taronga Conservation Society of Australia and Rapiscan Systems and use their emerging science to detect and care for smuggled wildlife.

When smuggled wildlife are detected at Australia’s borders using Rapiscan Systems scanners, Environmental Crime staff take the seized parcels to Taronga to be unboxed. Once there, the animals receive health checks and, where possible, are rehomed.

Over the 4 months to December 2023, the Taronga team had cared for more than 100 seized reptiles—an average of one to two packages per week – part of a total of 117 packages containing 441 specimens recovered across Australia by the Environmental Crime team.

Wildlife crime is a key threat to Australia’s native plants and animals. Minister Plibersek recently increased protections for 27 species, including 8 that are threatened by illegal collection and wildlife trafficking such as the Daintree rainbowfish and Jardine River turtle.

Minister for the Environment and Water, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP said when the use of pXRF was announced:

“Illegal trafficking and wildlife crime is fast becoming a threat for many of our species that are already at risk of extinction. In fact, a single poaching event could drive the critically endangered Cape Melville leaf-tailed gecko to extinction in the wild.

“We have to stamp out this terrible trade which sees our native animals captured in the Aussie outback, bound and gagged, and sent overseas to be sold. That’s why we’re boosting our efforts to combat crime here and overseas, using some of the best minds and technology available.

“My message to these criminals is we will not stop until we shut down this cruel trade.

“We’re determined to better protect our precious native plants and animals so they can be enjoyed by our kids and grandkids. This is just one part of doing this, on top of the $500 million we’re investing in projects to protect native species and tackle invasive pests.”

NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe said:

“Everyone has a role to play in the protection of our native wildlife.

“It is devastating to think that so many iconic species that call New South Wales and Australia home are being taken from the wild and subjected to such terrible conditions.

“I’m proud that this world leading science, which has global implications, has been developed in Sydney by the team at Taronga and Rapiscan.”

Dr Phoebe Meagher, Wildlife Conservation Officer, Taronga Conservation Society Australia stated:

“Taronga is uniquely positioned with the tools and expertise to work together with our enforcement and industry partners to combat illegal wildlife trade.

“We have seen an increase in smuggled wildlife, with the animals often in a poor welfare state.

“Collaborating to embed science in national processes to improve conservation outcomes is so rewarding and motivates us to continue to find new ways to apply science to protect wildlife.”

Dr Vanessa Pirotta, Chief Data Scientist – wildlife program, Rapiscan Systems, said:

“Use of innovative technologies in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking is an additional tool in our detection toolbox. This always allows us to look inside and around how wildlife might be smuggled.

“This unique collaboration with Government, industry and science is allowing us to strengthen Australia's commitment to protecting wildlife both nationally and internationally.

“We are proud to have developed world first detection algorithms using AI to complement existing detection methods at Australia's frontlines."

The NSW Police call for anyone who notices someone engaging in this practice to contact them: 

Anyone with information that may assist investigators is urged to contact Crime Stoppers: 1800 333 000 or https://nsw.crimestoppers.com.au. 

Information is treated in strict confidence. 

Lizard in your luggage? We’re using artificial intelligence to detect wildlife trafficking

A scanned lace monitor lizard (Varanus varius) image produced by using new technology. Rapiscan SystemsAuthor provided
Vanessa PirottaMacquarie University and Justine O'BrienUNSW Sydney

Blue-tongue lizards and sulphur-crested cockatoos are among the native animals frequently smuggled overseas.

While the number of live animals seized by the Australian Government has tripled since 2017, the full scale of the problem eludes us as authorities don’t often know where and how wildlife is trafficked. Now, we can add a new technology to Australia’s arsenal against this cruel and inhumane industry.

Our research, published today, shows the potential for new technology to detect illegal wildlife in luggage or mail. This technology uses artificial intelligence to recognise the shapes of animals when scanned at international frontlines such as airports and mail centres.

Exotic species are also smuggled into the country, such as snakes, turtles and fish. This could disrupt Australia’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industries by introducing pests and diseases, and could also threaten fragile native ecosystems.

Shingleback lizards are one of Australia’s most trafficked animals. Shutterstock

An Animal Welfare Problem

Wildlife trafficking is driven by several factors, including purported medicinal purposes, animals having ornamental value or for the illegal pet trade.

It can have fatal consequences, as it usually involves transporting individual animals in tight or cramped environments. This often results in the animals becoming stressed, dehydrated and dying.

Some people have even tried to use chip packets to smuggle Australian wildlife.

Traffickers often transport several individuals in one go, in the hope one animal makes it alive.

We don’t know the complete picture of which animals are being trafficked, how they’re trafficked or even when it’s occurring. But examples from seized cases in Australia suggest traffickers highly prize Aussie reptiles and birds.

For example, shingleback lizards, a type of blue-tongue lizard, are considered one of Australia’s most trafficked species.

Just another sulphur-crested cockatoo to you? These Australian birds are exotic in the international pet trade and have been a known victim of illegal wildlife trafficking. Dr Vanessa Pirotta

Apart from being cruel and inhumane, wildlife trafficking can also facilitate the introduction of alien species into new environments.

This brings significant biosecurity risks. For example, zoonosis (diseases jumping from a non-human animal to a human) involves people handling stressed, wild animals. Exotic species can also disrupt natural ecosystems, as we’ve famously seen with the damage wrought by cane toads in northern Australia.

Unregulated wildlife entering the country may also harbour new diseases or destructive parasites. This could damage agricultural industries and potentially raise the prices of our fruit and vegetables.

Creating An Trafficking Image Library

Our new research documents a variety of wildlife species, which have been scanned using state-of-the-art technology to help build computer algorithms using “Real Time Tomography”.

Real Time Tomography is an imaging technique that uses a series of x-rays to scan an item (such as a lizard). It then produces a three dimensional image of the animal which, in turn, is used to develop algorithms. For example, mail and luggage can be scanned at the airport and, if wildlife are enclosed, the algorithms will alert operators of their presence.

Our study scanned known species of trafficked Australian animals to create an image reference library. A total of 294 scans from 13 species of lizards, birds and fish were used to develop initial wildlife algorithms, with a detection rate of 82%, and a false alarm rate at just 1.6%.

Wildlife algorithm successfully detecting a shingleback lizard. This is a screenshot from the user interface alerting the operator of a detected shingleback lizard (Tiliqua rugosa) via the green bounding box which has labelled this a lizard. Pirotta et al. 2022

This research is the first to document the use of 3D X-ray CT security scan technology for wildlife protection within the peer-reviewed scientific literature. It’s also the first to report results for the detection of reptiles, birds and fish within such scans.

The detection tool is designed to complement existing detection measures of Australian Border Force, biosecurity officers and detection dogs, which remain crucial in our fight against wildlife crime.

How Else Are We Stopping Wildlife Trafficking?

The tools currently helping to detect and restrict wildlife trafficking mainly rely on human detection methods.

This includes cyber-crime investigations or Australian Border Force and biosecurity officers manually searching bags. Biosecurity detector dogs patrolling airports are also useful, as are smartphone reporting apps such as the Wildlife Witness App.

Also crucial are efforts to dismantle illegal trade networks at the source. This is by understanding and reducing consumer demand for wildlife and wildlife products, providing alternate livelihoods for would-be poachers, and enforcing stronger governance and monitoring.

Seized animals can be used as evidence to identify traffickers, with previous cases resulting in successful prosecution by environmental investigators. For example, a former rugby league player has been jailed for four years after getting caught trying to smuggle a variety of animals in and out of Australia.

Continuing The Fight

All these measures help fight wildlife trafficking, but there’s no single solution to predict when and where the events will likely take place.

Wildlife traffickers may adapt their behaviours frequently to avoid being detected. As a result, innovative and adaptive solutions, such as our new technology, are vital to support existing detection techniques.

Any effort to stamp out this terrible activity is a step in the right direction, and the potential for 3D detection enables us to adapt and evolve with how traffickers may change their behaviours.

We would like to acknowledge Dr Phoebe Meagher from the Taronga Conservation Society Australia for her contribution to this research and article.The Conversation

Vanessa Pirotta, Postdoctoral Researcher and Wildlife Scientist, Macquarie University and Justine O'Brien, Manager of Conservation Science, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, University of Sydney, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.