Kangaroos found in India and cockatoos in Indonesia. Australia’s unique and unusual wildlife is showing up where it shouldn’t, as part of the $450 billion black market in animal trafficking.

“Definitely, we’re a target,” says Professor Phill Cassey, director of the newly established Wildlife Crime Research Hub at Adelaide University.

“There’s a lot more Australian species being traded outside the country than we were originally aware of.”

These lizards packaged up in boxes were detected by Border Force.(Supplied: Australian Border Force)

The number of Australian species being traded internationally is estimated to be in the thousands.

Cockatoos and other native parrots have been especially popular, with a “prolific trade” identified in Asia.

Cockatoos are particularly popular on the international market.(Supplied: Dr George Olah)

“Historically, there’s been a demand for those charismatic, large-bodied birds — there’s a uniqueness and distinctness that makes them highly desirable,” Professor Cassey said.

“The harder they are to obtain, the more valuable they’re often considered.”

The most in-demand creatures internationally are reptiles. More than 170 Australian species have been detected in trade overseas.

However, many of them do not make it out of the country alive.

“The way they’re packaged is horrendous and really inhumane — taped up in gaffer tape, they can’t breathe, stuffed inside things,” said Dr Phoebe Meagher, from Taronga Conservation Society.

“Wherever they come from, they’re always in a really bad state”.

Dr Phoebe Meagher and a colleague inspect a shingleback lizard at Taronga Wildlife Hospital.(ABC News: Jake Grant)

More than 100 lizards were found in parcels, chip packets and gift boxes at Australia Post sorting facilities over a four-month period at the end of last year.

Sydney’s Taronga Wildlife Hospital took in the survivors.

“Shingleback lizards and blue-tongue lizards are the most smuggled and trafficked species out of Australia,” Dr Meagher told 7.30.

A suitcase found containing birds, bird eggs and reptiles is inspected at the Australian Museum.(Supplied: Australian Museum)

Shinglebacks are the only known monogamous reptile species in the world.

They can live for up to 50 years and develop enduring relationships during that time.

Some of the lizards that were seized during a raid in Sydney earlier this year.(Supplied: NSW Police)

They’re considered extremely valuable when sold as a mated pair.

“The traders and smugglers presume some will die, that’s why they put out so many numbers,” Dr Meagher said.

“Often they do have to be euthanased if they’re carrying disease, or they’re in a really bad state with broken limbs or dehydration and won’t make a recovery.”

In one case in January, 257 lizards were seized in raids across Sydney, with an approximate value of $1.2 million.

It was alleged they’d been harvested from their native habitats by a high-level criminal syndicate with links to Hong Kong.

Deadly introductions

Professor Phill Cassey says more Australian species are being illegally traded “than we were originally aware of”.(ABC News)

It’s not only what’s going out, but what’s coming in, that’s of concern to authorities.

According to evidence seen by Professor Cassey from the Wildlife Crime Research Hub, around 75 species of foreign reptiles have been seized within Australia.

Some of those are more dangerous than the equivalent Australian species.

“The ones we see appearing most in the wild are the American corn snake and boa constrictor, but also leopard geckos and red-eared slider turtles,” he told 7.30.

And then there’s the more curious creatures.

Pygmy marmosets are among the foreign species being illegally brought into Australia.(YouTube: Symbio Wildlife Park)

Pygmy marmosets, pygmy hedgehogs and chameleons are among the more unusual animals being bought and sold domestically.

A majority of those deals are said to take place in private online forums, chat groups and communities of specialist collectors.

The problem is considered so “massive”, Professor Cassey has pulled together a team of scientists to develop new ways to monitor and disrupt traffickers — alongside authorities around the world.

“Wildlife trafficking is the fourth-largest transnational organised crime — worth over $450 billion a year,” he said.

Red-eared slider turtles, which originate from the US and Mexico, have been found in the wild in Australia.(ABC News: Isabel Dayman)

“It’s commonly believed a lot of species are going to South East Asia and China. We do see that as a route but we’re also seeing considerable and increased demand through Europe.

“We see the demand for Australian wildlife being supplied locally by the breeders and the poachers, and in the middle of that are the coordinators and couriers that are linking that supply and demand, and there can be any number of links within that.”

The syndicates are complex, often described as unorganised-organised crime, and the ones who get caught are seldom at the top of the chain.

Crime-fighting behind closed doors

Taronga Zoo is using an X-ray gun that can read a lizard’s genetic signature and trace its origin.(ABC News: Jake Grant)

Animal forensics, artificial intelligence and advanced science are being combined in several cutting-edge projects across Australia.

At the Wildlife Crime Research Hub, a rapid DNA test allows authorities on the front line to detect illegally-held animals.

“They can swab surfaces within a container or holding that’s been used, then they can confidently determine whether an exotic species was present at that site,” researcher and PhD student Nathan Deliveyne told 7.30.

“Results come in half an hour and it can be implemented in biosecurity compliance scenarios.”

A shingleback lizard at the Taronga Wildlife Hospital.(ABC News: Jake Grant)

Another project uses custom-built artificial intelligence to automatically scrape the web for illicit animal traders.

“The scale of trade is enormous, taking place across hundreds of websites, with sometimes thousands of ads on one website,” said Dr Adam Toomes, who writes the code.

“We’re really looking for species endemic to Australia making their way into international marketplaces … it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

A lizard goes under the X-ray gun at Taronga.(ABC News: Jake Grant)

At Taronga Zoo, scientists are taking up arms.

Their latest weapon is an X-ray gun that — in a majority of cases — can trace a lizard’s origin by reading the unique genetic signature in its scales.

“With this tech, we can find out where they come from, which is groundbreaking,” Dr Pheobe Meagher said.

“Since we’ve been running our projects at least three arrests have been made in this area, and since those arrests we’ve also seen a drop off in the amount of animals coming through the hospital, so we can see it is making a tangible difference.”

Rhino horn, gold, cocaine

Dr Greta Frankham and Dr Kyle Ewart do a DNA test on a rhino horn, which is worth close to a $1 million, at the Australian Museum.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

One of the hottest commodities globally is rhino horn.

Per gram, it sells for more than gold or cocaine on the black market.

Demand for rhino horn is largely driven through south-east Asia, in particular Vietnam and China.

Officials prepare to destroy confiscated ivory — elephant tusks — in Bangkok, Thailand.(Reuters: Chaiwat Subprasom)

Scientists at the Australian Museum in Sydney have come up with a breakthrough test to catch poachers in their tracks.

“I don’t think anyone imagines when they come to the natural history museum [that] behind the scenes we’re fighting crime, but we are,” said Professor Kris Helgen, the museum’s chief scientist.

The rapid DNA test being carried out on the rhino horn was developed with the support of the federal government.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Using a 10-kilogram horn seized by Australian customs and valued close to a million dollars, his team has created a rapid DNA test that can identify the species the horn was taken from, and in some instances link it to individual carcasses.

“The test can distinguish between real rhino horn, fake, what species, and this can be used in court to prosecute poachers and traffickers,” Dr Kyle Ewart told 7.30.

The 24-hour test was developed with the support of the federal government, which donated its stock of seized rhino horns for science.

Government launches overhaul of laws

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says animal traffickers are “despicable”.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

“I think anybody who’s involved in animal trafficking is a despicable human being,” Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek told 7.30.

“We need to make criminals understand that we’ve got more resources than ever [for] catching and convicting people engaged in the trade.”

The Commonwealth is working through recommendations from a damning review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity (EPBC) Act.

“The minimum penalties, and chance of getting to prosecution, are very low and even when they do, we don’t have an environment court, a judiciary system set up to understand these crimes,” Professor Cassey said.

The 2020 Graeme Samuel review of the EPBC Act gave 38 recommendations, many of which stated an overhaul of the act was required.

The government responded in 2022 with its Nature Positive Plan, outlining an intention to introduce stronger laws and standards.

Four people were charged in Sydney in January after allegedly capturing and attempting to export hundreds of Australian native reptiles overseas.(Supplied: NSW Police)

It has introduced legislation to establish a new national independent agency, Environmental Protection Australia (EPA)

The decision has been met with concern.

“Establishing the EPA as an authority, that is now working with an act which has been described as out of date, means they’ve been given ineffective tools in which they can be an affective lawmaker,” Professor Cassey said.

Ms Plibersek disagreed, likening the situation to “building a house before the family moves in”.

“Stronger laws, more resources, community education — all of these have to work together to end the wildlife trade,” she said.

A draft of the new act is expected to be presented in coming months, with tougher penalties and fines for trafficking perpetrators being considered.

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