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Following the conviction of three gecko smugglers in New Zealand, it was reported that Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson may overhaul wildlife laws after a German gecko smuggler was sentenced to 15 weeks jail and two other men admitted their roles in the smuggling operation.

While I’m not against stiffer penalties, anybody familiar with NZ laws is aware that the maximum penalties are very severe. Native wildlife is protected by the Wildlife Act, the Conservation Act if the animals are sourced there, the Trade In Endangered Species Act, and our Biosecurity Act.

The sanctions available to the courts are not inadequate. The real problem is that such sanctions cannot be set at levels that deter. Wildlife smuggling rings long ago, worked out that you can easily set up someone with low wealth to be your fall guy. So for tiger-parts into China, you just bribe a bus or train driver and pickup the stuff later.

If you want deterrence, the rule of thumb is that the expected sanction has to match or be greater than the reward. Let’s suppose you want to smuggle some NZ animals. You think there’s a 10% chance you’ll get caught, and you will be paid $50,000 for your part in the conspiracy. That means you’re balancing a ‘win’ of $50,000 against the 10% risk of being caught and fined. For the two choices to be equal, the courts would have to be giving out a fine of $500,000. They can’t and they don’t.

So, we know that sanctions have to be pretty high to deter wildlife smugglers. Therein is the problem. The guys that run these conspiracies pick people of poor wealth to take the risks. The courts can’t fine them enough to deter, because the couriers can’t pay those fines.

If we look at the 1993 Price Conspiracy- which smuggled birds into New Zealand from Australia, there were 6 conspirators. Three were unemployed, one was a sickness beneficiary, one was self-employed and one was an agriculturalist. The conspiracy moved Australian parrots worth hundreds of thousands of dollars into New Zealand in a small aircraft. Only one individual was fined ($5000) and the rest received jail terms of 6-12 months. The reason was simple- the conspirators didn’t have the wealth to fine to be a proper deterrent.

The fact is you can’t set fines and other criminal sanctions at a level that really deters. For decades, wildlife conspiracies have got around that problem by getting low-income people to take the risks. And courts can’t set sanctions on low-income people at a level that actually deters.