By Tanya Plibersek

21 December 2023





CAMERON KERR: Well, good morning and welcome. Welcome to Taronga, my name is Cam Kerr, I'm the CEO for the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, and very important day today. We're here on Cammeraygal Land, I'd like to acknowledge that this always has been Cammeraygal Land and always will be Cammeraygal Land. We're very fortunate today to have our Ministers here, both.


Federal and state Ministers, and Rapiscan and of course the Taronga scientists, to talk about one of the key threatening processes for wildlife around the globe, and that is the illegal wildlife crime.


It is over a $20 billion industry, and it has a much bigger impact on Australian wildlife than you may ever guess.


So I'd now like to introduce, first of all, Tanya Plibersek, the federal Minister for the Environment, then Penny Sharpe, the state Minister for the Environment, Vanessa Pirotta, who is a representative from Rapiscan who we've worked very closely with, and Meagher, who is our lead scientist on this particular project.


So welcome, Minister Plibersek.


TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Thanks so much, Cameron. It's always wonderful to be here at Taronga to see the fantastic conservation work that is done here, and it's a particularly good day to be here today to see the advances that we're making in protecting threatened species in Australia. It's terrific to see the demonstration of this Rapiscan technology, and I congratulate everybody involved with the project.


The Australian Government is investing around $500 million to better protect our native plants and animals. We know that too many species are becoming threatened or endangered, in fact I've added dozens of species to the Threatened Species List since becoming Minister.


We know, as Cameron said, that one of the key threats is the risk of being taken from the wild and trafficked overseas, and that's why the Commonwealth government has invested substantial new resources in better protecting Australian plants and animals.


We've got Brad here today, who's one of the new team based here in Sydney, we've got another team based in Melbourne, tough cops on the beat protecting our native plants and animals from being exported overseas.


You see behind me the sort of containers that these animals are bound and gagged and placed into. It's a miracle that any of them survive. This is such an incredibly cruel way to treat our native animals, but it's also a real risk to these species in the wild.


Most Australians wouldn't understand that this is one of the largest sources of income for criminals globally; it's about the fourth‑largest organised crime in the world, in our region - we believe around $30 billion a year of illegal wildlife trade by organised criminals.


We've got to stamp it out, and that's why I'm very pleased that since May this year we've seen eight operations. There are seven matters currently before the courts, and we've seen two people jailed since May, and as far as I'm concerned, we should throw the book at them. It's a selfish and a cruel way to try and make a few bucks at the expense of these beautiful animals.


This is just one of the investments we're making to better protect our native plants and animals. We've just announced a funding round for threatened species where 61 projects worth $24 million have been funded. We've seen all sorts of threatened species; the handfish, the hairy‑nosed wombat, a whole range of different animals have received funding that will help protect them in the future.


And today I'm announcing another round of grant funding that is actually focused on technologies and science that will help protect threatened species, things like the Rapiscan technology, and like the machines that can be utilised to deal with feral animals, like vaccines to prevent animals from becoming sick.


We are absolutely determined to partner with fantastic conservation organisations like Taronga, and our wonderful partners in the state governments like New South Wales to better protect Australian plants and animals, to make sure that our kids and our grandkids get to see these things in the wild.


PENNY SHARPE: Penny Sharpe, Minister for the Environment. Wildlife crime is real, it's worth billions of dollars and it's highly organised through organised crime gangs. Being able to work with the federal government to get the type of technology that we've seen today that allows us to examine those boxes that are going out and to catch the people responsible for it cannot be underestimated.


It's an incredibly important part of the work that's being undertaken. But also having the skills here at Taronga with the scientists and the carers and the zookeepers who are watching and looking after these animals, who are actually able to bring them back to health.


We were told before that when these poor animals get stuffed in these boxes, they're dehydrated, many of them don't survive, and they're in a very bad way. It's a horribly cruel animal welfare exercise, but what I'm so pleased to hear about is the work that Taronga's able to do is to bring them back to life and to have a healthy and ongoing life.


We met Bumpy before, 32 years old, was a trafficked shingleback. It shows that there can be hope and that we can do it. But really, I just want to thank today, particularly the resources being put in by the federal government for this, and all of the work by the dedicated team that are trying to stamp out wildlife crime.


We cannot have these precious animals being harmed. They should not be exported in dark boxes to be badly treated into the future. They need to be looked after, they need to be protected, as we're required to do under Australian law, but the team around them that's doing this work, I just want to congratulate them and thank them.


And the other thing I wanted to say today is, look, if you see something or if you know something, please report it. We have the resources, we have the dedicated team here who can look after the animals, and they will do that. So if you know people that are doing the wrong thing, make sure you dob them in.


DR VANESSA PIROTTA: Good morning, Dr Vanessa Pirotta, Wildlife Scientist, who is leading the Illegal Wildlife Program at Rapiscan Systems, and I am very delighted to be working collaboratively with the Australian Federal Government and Taronga Zoo to stamp out illegal wildlife trafficking right here in Australia.


The way in which we're working collaboratively together is very much harnessing the power of innovative technology, whether it be through the use of the 3D technology machine like the RTT110 located at the Sydney Gateway facility, and then to the handheld XRF machine used right here at Taronga Zoo.


This is truly a very innovative collaborative way forwards, and also complementary to Australia's frontline detection, not only that of the personnel detecting these items through the use of our wildlife machines like the RTT, through the Australia of 3D x‑ray technology, but also sniffer dog detection, and in this case the ability to detect our native wildlife going out of Australia, that's a national and international obligation for us to protect, but also animals coming into Australia is also a risk to our multi‑billion dollar agriculture industry.


So if we can put our efforts at Australia's frontline, we're doing a good job, and in complementary to these efforts, we also proudly have collaboratively built world‑first wildlife algorithms for the detection of lizards, fish and birds, and that's published in the international scientific literature, which is great.


So together in summary, the use of the RTT machine at Sydney Gateway facility, through the use of the Rapiscan machine, is allowing us to detect what's in an item and what traffickers are trafficking. That then provides crucial information for the team here at Taronga Zoo to understand what is in these boxes, because this technology allows us to look in and around these items, and this can mean the difference between unboxing a dangerous animal and that of a relatively harmless animal, but potentially lots of them. Thank you.


DR PHOEBE MEAGHER: Dr Phoebe Meagher, Wildlife Conservation Officer here at Taronga Zoo, in charge of forensic projects here at Taronga.

Illegal wildlife trade is the second‑greatest contributor to global species loss, and sadly here at Taronga we've seen an increase in the number of smuggled animals that have come through our doors requiring treatment.


Fortunately, Taronga is really well‑positioned to be able to detect, to treat and to trace these smuggled animals. In the past four months we have treated and given a second chance to life to 100 individual reptiles because of our hospitals.


We've also been able to partner with Rapiscan technologies to increase detections in our mail pathways, and we have in a world‑first trialled elemental analysis technology with the XRF machine here to allow us to determine the origin of these smuggled animals in the mail; whether they have come from the wild or whether they have come from captivity and back yard breeding environments.


I'm really proud to have this science be used in collaboration with the Federal Government, to collaborate with industry and also academia at UNSW, UTS and ANSTO, to be able to make a real difference in combatting illegal wildlife trade.


I look forward to continue to work with federal government and our academic and industry partners to make a real difference in dismantling illegal wildlife trade.


KERR: So we can take a few questions now, if anyone's got any questions.


JOURNALIST: Sorry, but can we get one of those either one of other ladies to just talk about ‑ have you guys seen I guess an increase in more of the trafficking, and then since you guys have done that, I guess earlier this year, have you less of it, are they being warned, are they left scared?


DR MEAGHER: From Taronga's perspective, from August we saw the increase, and then we've seen about one to three packages come through our hospital, which was a huge increase to previous years, but since the arrests that were made by the federal government we definitely saw a drop‑off in the amount of packages coming through, which has been really motivational for us as well to keep collaborating together.


JOURNALIST: And why was there an increase in the number of trafficking, I guess, during that time.


MEAGHER: That would be a question for the people fighting the crime.


PIROTTA: I can add something to that. What's really wonderful, although this is a bleak sort of scenario, trafficking is a global problem. The ability to detect and have the communications between all three parties here is crucial, because at the same time as detecting trafficking cases, every single case contributes to strengthening and building our detection algorithms, which will be complementary to how we detect these animals at our frontline. So it's really, it's a win situation, a positive out of a negative situation, is what I'm trying to say.


JOURNALIST: Can you tell us where these animals have come from; have they come from people's backyards, and where are they going, and how much they sell for on the black market?


MEAGHER: I can answer that. So we get both animals being poached from the wild and also from backyard breeders, so we find that the animals that are typically in really poor condition, often covered in ticks, often have bumps and bruises and trauma associated are often ones taken from the wild.


We do also see animals that are in good condition actually and are quite fed up. Often we know that they're feeding them dog food, which is disgusting and not their natural diet, but it does mean we know that those animals are more typically bred in backyard breeding facilities.


As well there's a difference between wild morphs and captive animals, so sometimes backyard breeders will breed animals for a specific colouration that doesn't occur in the wild, and therefore, we know, that they're taken from captivity, and we can confirm that our analysis on the XRF device.


JOURNALIST: And where are they going to?


MEAGHER: So we see them going out overseas to Hong Kong typically, but they are going from there to other places around the world as well. We do know that demand is global for these animals. Unfortunately they're very easy to catch in the wild. They don't have any, you know, big teeth or venomous spurs that can hurt these poachers, so they're quite easy to then put in these postal packages and ship overseas, where they're very coveted.


From my understanding they can go anywhere between $2,500 and $30,000 for a pair.


JOURNALIST: And we've heard today that the shinglebacks and the blue tongue lizards are most commonly found. Is that just because they're not found elsewhere, and they are Australia's native animals?


MEAGHER: Right. So native Australian animals are very unique, they're coveted all overseas, and it's not just reptiles that are being smuggled. So there's evidence to show that everything from echidnas, sugar gliders, small kangaroo, joeys and birds, so parrots are also very coveted overseas.


So this technology not only will work for lizards, but also for all species that are in demand overseas.


PIROTTA: And on that actually, sorry to jump in, but yeah, what Phoebe was saying is crucial, because our Australian wildlife, they're unique, and we all really like them; whether it be the shingleback lizard where the head looks like its bum, that is unique to here, but this is only just the start of what we are able to detect.


So while this does seem to have very Australian focus, there is the potential to expand our detection capabilities right here in Australia to focusing on animals globally, and those other species that we know are trafficked, whether it be pangolins or marine species, this doesn't just have to be animals on land that are trafficked. We need to think beyond and outside that box, and here in Australia with the collaboration of Taronga Zoo, the federal government and Rapiscan Systems, we're very perfectly placed to make that happen, and obviously with the support of our state and our national environmental ministers, this is a perfect platform to tell people about it and to inform the general public.


JOURNALIST: Okay. In light of Natasha Fyles' alleged conflict of interest with Federal Labor, sorry, will Federal Labor continue to back the NT's controversial Middle Arm Precinct? 


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, Natasha Fyles has resigned, and I wish her all the very best, and Eva Lawler has become the new Chief Minister of the Northern Territory. She was supported by everybody in the Labor Party room. I really wish Eva Lawler all the very best. She will concentrate on all the issues that matter to Territorians like cost of living and making sure that there's jobs and there's decent quality of living for Territorians.


JOURNALIST: Will Labor continue to back the Middle Arm Precinct?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, the Middle Arm Precinct is a large and complex proposal that we're working our way through very carefully. I'm the Environment Minister, I might have a decision making role on middle arms, I'm not going to make any comments about the project, it would not be proper for me to do so before there's an actual question before me.


JOURNALIST: Is it time for state and territory governments to ban ministers from holding shares? 


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think it's very, very important that people fully declare any shares that they have, any financial interests they have. At the federal level, of course, we declare those things as Members of Parliament, we have a high threshold, again if you're a Minister, and of course we promised and have delivered a new National Anti‑Corruption Commission, which is already open for business and taking referrals.


I think Australians expect the highest standards of transparency and accountability from their Members of Parliament, and that's what I'm prepared to be held to.


JOURNALIST: What do you make of China celebrating the fact that we haven't sent a warship to the Red Sea. Are we letting down our closest ally, the US?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, on the issue of a request for Australia to send additional vessels to the Red Sea, we've made it very clear that we have, over many decades, seen Australian operations in that region. We will do those when they're in Australia's interests. We also continue to focus our efforts in our region in particular. The Defence Minister, Richard Marles, is in constant communication with our friends and allies in the United States, and I certainly wouldn't take an editorial in a regional Chinese newspaper as a first order source on Australian foreign policy.


JOURNALIST: A new report is calling for childcare workers to be banned from using their own phones at centres, following an arrest of an alleged paedophile who took photos which were then posted online. Should this phone ban happen?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, this is a report that will go to Education Ministers. The ban on phones I think is one of 16 recommendations in the report. I think it's absolutely proper for education ministers to consider all of the recommendations in the report. Anything we need to do to keep our kids safe is something that education ministers will take very seriously. Okay.

Thank you.