Cold-blooded treasures – the illegal traffic in Australian reptiles

A careful nudge, a gentle lick – just some of the repertoire of moves a male shingleback lizard enlists when he goes courting.

If he is successful in winning over a female, the pair will spend the spring together, split for the rest of the year, and then reunite the following spring.

Once bonded they will return to each other every spring for the rest of their long lives, often for over 20 years. On occasions when one of the pair is killed, researchers have witnessed the surviving partner returning repeatedly to spend time by the body, persuading them that this creature is experiencing something akin to grief.

The faithfulness demonstrated by Tiliqua rugosa – variously also known as shinglebacks, bob-tails, stumpy-tails, sleepy, and pinecone lizards – has given this reptile a romantic reputation, making it a favorite with China’s rising monied class. With the rise of household incomes, exotic pets have become commonplace in China, where it’s estimated there are some 5 million pet reptiles.

Shinglebacks often die on long-haul journeys, though it only takes a few to be profitable. (Supplied: WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions)

Shinglebacks often die on long-haul journeys, though it only takes a few to be profitable. (Supplied: WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions)

This has made the species a hot target for smugglers. Chinese consumers can easily purchase these lizards online via sites like Taobao, China’s largest online marketplace, or Xianyu, both owned by Chinese multinational conglomerate Alibaba.

A survey of some of these sites by our investigations team revealed dozens of ads for Australian shinglebacks, alongside many other Australian reptiles, with prices from $3,500 to $5,000 for one or nearly $18,000 for a bonded pair.

To avoid scrutiny, suppliers on these websites will often advertise their livestock as “blue-tongue lizard toy” or “a drawing of a lizard”, but the photos published alongside these captions show real, live lizards as the products being sold.

Advertisements on WeChat selling Australian reptiles

Advertisements on WeChat selling Australian reptiles

If people are interested in buying, they can simply message the person advertising. Another common method is to post on platforms like Xianyu or Baidu Tieba stating an interest, and sellers will respond by sharing their contact information

Posing as prospective buyers, our reporting team contacted reptile traders and asked them about the origin of their lizards.

Sellers who claimed to be running legal trading enterprises stopped responding when pressed and refused to provide copies of the licenses they claimed to possess.

While it is illegal under Australian law to import or export Australian wildlife without a license, many Australian reptile species, including shinglebacks, are not classified as protected species under Chinese regulations. Once the reptiles are in China, sellers exploit this loophole, claiming ignorance of the provenance of the reptiles, arguing that they are doing nothing wrong – as several did when questioned by The Citizen.

Determining just how many native Australian reptiles are being sold illegally internationally is difficult because opaque international regulations means it is often hard to determine if a sale is legal or illegal, says Adam Toomes, who is undertaking a PhD at Adelaide University researching Australia’s role in the international wildlife trade and its conservation and biosecurity consequences.

“Usually there is a lot of ambiguity regarding the legality of a sale, so for example, it’s not technically illegal for someone in Germany to sell an Australian endemic species if it was actively bred in Germany,” he says. “However, it is illegal to export an Australian species out of Australia.”

Few buyers appear to question the conditions under which their new pets have arrived. When asked by The Citizen whether buyers cared that their lizards were being illegally smuggled into China, one responded “not at all”.

Another, when questioned about whether his operation was licensed, argued licenses were “a waste of energy and money. Like, do I need a license for selling you a basin?”.

One Chinese customs officer, who asked not to be named, told The Citizen: “It is impossible for individuals to import reptiles legally”.

Another WeChat advertisement, this time for a knob-tailed gecko

Another WeChat advertisement, this time for a knob-tailed gecko

They were usually smuggled into the country by airline passengers, stowed in luggage or clothing, he said, “but if you are caught, your reptiles will be confiscated”.

There’s little evidence that this prospect worries lizard traders. One vendor said that there were times when levels of scrutiny might increase, but this prospect was not enough to dissuade operations – it would just cost the customers a little more.

“Recently, in Beijing, the police are very strict in investigating because of the clean-up activity for the 70th anniversary of the founding of China and the delivery companies are raising their prices,” he said. “So in the future, send parcels to Beijing, we will charge 10 yuan more.”

In the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak, unprecedented police scrutiny has meant some vendors have stopped shipping lizards altogether. One seller told The Citizen, “Not now, because of coronavirus, animals are controlled strictly”.

“They’re taking advantage of the fact that reptiles can be stuffed into quite cramped conditions and survive”

Shinglebacks are commonly found in bushland and gardens in coastal areas of Western Australia and South Australia. Beyond Australian shores they have become popular as low-maintenance exotic pets, particularly in China and the United States.

“They’re incredibly easy to keep,” says Dr Ashleigh Wolfe, a behavioural ecologist and shingleback expert from Perth’s Curtin University. “You just need a tank at the right temperature, a UV light and to feed them once or twice a week.

“They’re weird and cute, and if you’ve got a docile one who is not trying to bite you the whole time, they’re just really chill animals.”

Adding to shingleback’s vulnerability to smuggling is their size and their docility. Poachers can just pluck them out of the landscape. Many seized reptiles have been covered with ticks, indicating that they’ve been handpicked from the wild.

“I spent four years looking for them in the wild and every [shingleback] I saw, I managed to catch. I feel like they’re quite easy little things to get if you know what you’re doing,” says Wolfe.

Smugglers usually transport reptiles via commercial flights within checked luggage, or through the traditional mail system. Adam Toomes says he’s heard of reptiles being hidden inside teddy bears, Pringles tubes, and a laptop computer.

“They’re taking advantage of the fact that reptiles can be stuffed into quite cramped conditions and survive,” he says. “[Reptiles are] adapted to be able to use quite close spaces, which then, from a smuggler’s perspective, allows them to be stuffed inside certain objects.”

Unlike some other animals, reptiles can also withstand abnormally cool temperatures.

“If a reptile gets cold during a flight, they enter a state that is known as brumation, which is essentially a period of inactivity and low metabolic activity, and therefore it can survive quite a long journey if smuggled in some means,” he says.

The trade process for buying an Australia reptile via WeChat

The trade process for buying an Australia reptile via WeChat

While the survival rate for lizards like shinglebacks can be quite high, Toomes says that the high black market price tag means that smugglers can make a profit even if only three out of 15 animals survive the journey.

According to Dr Ehren Bentz, an American herpetologist, tight trading laws like those governing the release of wildlife from Australia can rebound against the best intentions, creating “a major incentive for illegal trade” and drive up the price on the black market.

The lack of legal channels to buy Australian reptiles “just makes people want them more (and) they are willing to pay”.

The global wildlife trade is worth $US20 billion per year and is the world’s fourth-largest blackmarket, according to leading wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

Figures collected through Freedom of Information and inquiries to federal authorities indicate there were more than 1100 specimens seized at Australian borders between July 2015 and September 2019. In Victoria alone, inquiries to the state Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning reveal that Australia Post discovered 150 reptiles inside 37 boxes at its Melbourne Gateway Facility between June 2018 and September 2019.

Still more are seized before they make it into the transit system. In March last year, authorities in Victoria seized 150 reptiles from three properties in Melbourne. They did not all survive.

“The reptiles were bound with tape and stuffed inside socks leading to some animals suffocating to death and others so traumatised they required euthanasia,” says Kate Gavens, chief conservation regulator with the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

In 2018, police in Western Australia pulled over a vehicle for speeding at Eucla, near the South Australian border, and found it was carrying 219 native animals, including 198 reptiles, crammed into small containers. Many were dead or dying.

The Federal Department of the Environment and Energy opened 47 investigations into the attempted illegal export of Australian native species between July 2015 and September 2019.

“The number of seizures is increasing, and is likely to reflect both an increase in compliance activity and an increase in illegal wildlife trade activity,” a department spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions confirmed there was evidence that foreign syndicates have been illegally poaching reptiles directly from the wild.

Adam Toomes is concerned that poachers often go looking for the fittest individuals to maximise the chances of successfully creating a captive breeding population overseas.

There is limited data on the impact that is having on the viability of target species, like shinglebacks, on the ground, he says. But because the target species are not listed as a threatened species in Australia, it is not considered a priority research area.

“First of all, we need to understand how much harvesting is going on, and where it’s happening,” he says. “That understanding is starting to increase but I think it has a long way to go. And furthermore we need to understand what actual effect that harvesting has on local populations.”

There are anecdotal reports of reptiles being repeatedly taken from locations popular with lizard traders, which Toomes says could potentially cause localised biodiversity issues.

“Some traders are specifically looking for particular localities, like for example, I’m looking right now at a German trading site where someone is selling the Goldfield locality of a shingleback,” he says.

“So it’s quite specific … If they’ve been taken from only one local population, then there’s potentially quite a high impact on that local population, even if the overall impact on a species level is quite small.”

The maximum penalty for exporting or importing regulated wildlife without authorization, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, is a $210,000 fine or 10 years imprisonment. Taking protected species from the wild carries a fine of $38,685, or two years imprisonment.

But recent history demonstrates that actual penalties imposed can be much lower.

In March 2019, Australia was one of 22 countries to join an international sting, led by Interpol, in an attempt to crack international organised crime syndicates behind the wildlife smuggling industry.

Called Operation Blizzard, it resulted in the arrest of 12 people, the identification of more than 200 suspects, and the seizure of 4419 live animals, mostly originating from Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. No Asian country participated in the operation.

Just one of those arrests was in Australia: a 27-year-old Japanese woman found with 19 lizards in her suitcase at Melbourne airport. Suspected of being involved in an international wildlife trafficking syndicate, she was sentenced to four months in prison.

A lizard is recovered from an attempted smuggling operation. (Supplied: WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions)

A lizard is recovered from an attempted smuggling operation. (Supplied: WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions)

ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Alyssa Herr, Else Kennedy, William Povey, Cai Shu Jing, Fia Walsh and Connor Webster

TOMORROW PT 2: Smugled lizards of Oz slide through the net

An edited version of this story is co-published by The Age: read it here.