By Tanya Plibersek

21 December 2023







Thursday 21 December 2023

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The Australian and New South Wales governments are using world leading technology to crack down on the global illegal trade of native plants and animals.

The lucrative trade of Australia’s native animals is increasingly an area of organised crime. Since May this year, 8 people have been charged with wildlife trafficking offences, of which 7 offenders are currently before the court and one has been sentenced to 12 month imprisonment. Last month, another offender was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment for a matter dating back to 2019.

Offences include the export of bird eggs, using the international mail system to attempt to send 100 native species, and 30 live reptiles like blue tongue and pink tongued skinks hidden amongst children’s dinosaur toys. Each count carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison and fines of up to $313,000 or both.

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 past four months, the Taronga team have 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.

Taronga, 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. 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. 

Wildlife crime is a key threat to Australia’s native plants and animals. Minister Plibersek has 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.

Quotes attributable to Minister for the Environment and Water, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP:

“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.”

Quotes attributable to NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe:

“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 NSW 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.”

Quotes attributable to Dr Phoebe Meagher, Wildlife Conservation Officer, Taronga Conservation Society Australia:

“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.”

Quotes attributable to Dr Vanessa Pirotta, Chief Data Scientist- wildlife program, Rapiscan Systems

“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."