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This morning’s Sunday Star Times had a piece that’s close to my heart, and it was with some dismay I read the article.

New Zealand’s flora and fauna is being pillaged for the black market. “It’s a huge problem,” Customs senior investigator and Wildlife Enforcement Group member Stuart Williamson said of the illegal but lucrative trade.

Well, it’s been an issue for some species but huge? The threats posed from predation, habitat loss and population fragmentation are huge. What’s the evidence that this black-market is huge?

In 2007, Customs made two prosecutions, but last year six were laid, and there have been two arrests this year.

Umm, well congratulations to Customs for making these arrests but this is still down there in the ‘handful’ of arrests stage and there is no obvious trend. I’m not thinking the ‘case’ for huge has been made. This week 1.2 tonnes of bear paws were intercepted in a truck in Russia, that’s over 1000 paws. The poaching levels for the African elephant are now as bad as they were in the 1980s. That’s a huge problem.

Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson said the government was “very concerned”. She had a bill before parliament that sought to double smuggling penalties, and which would ban anyone jailed for more than a year from New Zealand for a decade. Williamson said prosecution levels did not reflect the size of the problem, which was at a “critical” stage.

Again, it’s good to see concern from the Government, but please, someone explain what evidence we have that the situation is critical. And even more importantly, what is the empirical evidence that increasing smuggling penalties will address this probelm. If there is a critical problem, why aren’t we having a very serious debate over the strategies to stop poaching?

Often Customs became aware of smuggling only when researchers noticed declines in animal numbers “way above natural predation”.

Hmm, given that the introduced predators can predate a lot of our native animals to an extinction point, it’s pretty hard to pick up such trends.

The public could play a key role, reporting “suspicious behaviour” and taking down registration details.

Well, yes. Having a good local intelligence network does help law enforcement. People should be encouraged to do this.

Williamson said price was a key indicator of how well-supplied the exotic pet trade was. New Zealand geckos could fetch as much as $12,000 but prices were down in Europe, suggesting supply was high. A court case last year involving 16 geckos valued the lizards at $200,000 and Williamson said she had seen a pair of geckos offered on a website for $21,000.

Prices are often very varied for live animals as it depends on their colours, parentage, age and any defects to the scales.

One of the reasons prices are high for these geckos, is that NZ has also banned the export of these lizards for decades. By restricting the supply, such animals then attract a premium price. In effect, NZ has been offering a ‘bonus’ payment with this policy for people to smuggle our wildlife.

That’s the inevitable outcome of this policy. We’ve pushed prices up deliberately to make this illegal trade lucrative to smugglers.

Williamson said the blackmarket animal trade, believed to be worth $40 billion a year globally, worked a lot like the drug trade. “Not all the people we are catching are collectors, often they are the dupes who get paid a meagre amount to come and do the dirty work.” She said tougher penalties that “hit smugglers in the wallet”, coupled with longer jail terms, were the only way to stop New Zealand being targeted. – Sunday Star Times

Well, there are two important differences typically noted between the black-markets in drugs and wildlife. The first is that the intelligence and quality of information on the wildlife trade is abysmal. Throughout the world, far less is known about this trade than the drug-trade. The second is that criminal sanctions for smugglers are typically much lower. It is for these traffickers, a less risky enterprise.

Let’s remember that the illegal drug trade has persisted despite a high effort by law enforcement and much harsher penalties. What is the reason for supposing that the illegal wildlife trade will respond differently? Has the ‘Shoot to kill’ policy adopted towards elephant poachers in some African states prevented elephant poaching? (That’s rhetorical, the answer is no).

One of the reasons is that wildlife smugglers aren’t stupid. They are smart and able to organise the movement of illegal products over international distances. Williamson alludes to their favourite tactic of using low-income mules to take-on the border-crossing risk. These don’t have enough assets to pay the criminal sanctions needed to be a deterrence. Higher sanctions end up being ineffective. If you need a fine of $200k to be an effective deterrence and the mule has assets of $5k, you can’t get deterrence.

Let me suggest in fact, we should be discussing other strategies to defeat smugglers of our wildlife and not pretend that law enforcement is the only way. We have defeated poaching in other wildlife by introducing captive-bred animals to compete against smugglers. I don’t know if this will work for our targeted species, but it seems bizarre that we won’t even talk about this option when there’s no evidence the current policy is going to work either.