The Australian arm of a three-week, international operation targeting the illegal trade of reptiles, involving surprise raids, compliance inspections and random airport checks, resulted in the seizure of 69 reptiles.
Australia and 13 other INTERPOL-member countries participated in Operation Blizzard, an INTERPOL-coordinated campaign to increase enforcement and surveillance activities around suspicious reptile trading. The operation ran from 22 April to 12 May.
Wildlife authorities executed seven search warrants against suspected illegal traders across Australia, and conducted 51 wildlife compliance inspections, resulting in 17 detections of non-compliance.
Operation Blizzard was coordinated by the Department of the Environment and Energy’s Office of Compliance. The operation involved the Australian Border Force, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and environmental agencies from every state and territory in Australia joining forces to combat wildlife trafficking at a national level.
The Department of the Environment and Energy’s Chief Compliance Officer, Monica Collins, said, “Operation Blizzard shows what can be achieved when our federal, state and territory agencies work collaboratively to disrupt wildlife crime. Officers from all agencies are working tirelessly to thwart this illicit trade.”
In Tasmania, wildlife rangers from the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment executed two search warrants, seizing 25 live and dead animals, including a large carpet python.
The Queensland Police Major and Organised Crime Squad (Rural) worked closely with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service to jointly tackle reptile crime throughout the state. Queensland authorities executed five search warrants resulting in the seizure of 13 animals.
“This operation has sent a clear message that the Queensland Government has a zero tolerance approach to the illegal trade of wildlife. We take this type of crime very seriously and we will continue to work in conjunction with federal authorities beyond the conclusion of this operation”, said a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service spokesperson.
In South Australia, wildlife officers from the Department for Environment and Water undertook inspections of commercial licence holders. Australian Border Force officers in South Australia engaged with local community groups to raise awareness and encourage reporting of suspicious behaviour.
Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) are committed to tackling the illegal wildlife trade head on. This involves swift action on identified illegal exports or proactive inspections of licenced collections. As part of Operation Blizzard, DELWP focused on inspections of commercial and private licence holders to ensure the legal trade in Victoria is monitored appropriately.
DELWP continue their investigations, working collaboratively with other agencies, into five unsolved cases, where 12 live lizards were posted to China late last year. The suspects have been captured on CCTV, but to date have not been identified.
At Melbourne airport, Australian Border Force (ABF) officers arrested a 27-year-old Japanese national with 17 shinglebacks and two blue-tongued lizards concealed in her checked-in luggage. The woman is suspected of being involved in an international wildlife trafficking syndicate. The animals were seized and are currently being cared for by DELWP.
ABF Superintendent Operations Andrew Dawson said the ABF will continue to work closely with our partner agencies to share intelligence to identify and prevent attempts to illegally export native Australian wildlife.
“This is an incredibly cruel trade and the ABF will continue to do whatever we can to stop it,” said Superintendent Dawson. “Operation Blizzard was an excellent example of what can be achieved when state and federal agencies come together to protect our native Australian wildlife.”
In Western Australia, wildlife officers conducted thirteen inspections and attended a WA Police warrant. Officers from the Western Australia Parks and Wildlife Service seized two live pythons and a bearded dragon that was successfully returned to the wild. Officers issued two infringement notices totalling $5000.
The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources is investigating the detection of nine live turtles in an international mail parcel imported from Hong Kong.
“Illegal reptile imports pose a significant biosecurity risk, as they could introduce pests and diseases that can impact on human and animal health, as well as the environment,” said Chief Environmental Biosecurity Officer at the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources Ian Thompson.
“The Department works closely with other agencies to manage these risks at our international airports and mail centres.”
In the Northern Territory, wildlife officers from the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory are looking into a number of allegations, including a case involving the alleged poaching of Oenpelli pythons, a threatened species.
Investigators from the New South Wales Department of Planning and Environment conducted compliance inspections of private wildlife collections. Meanwhile, the ACT Parks and Conservation Service are busy with ongoing investigations, including caring for 27 native pythons and three pygmy bearded dragons seized from a residence.
“We’re pleased to be invited to take part in Operation Blizzard. Throughout the operation we conducted multiple inspections on both private and commercial reptile licence holders.
“We welcome any opportunity to educate licence holders and the wider community on the importance of reporting animals being taken from the wild or the keeping of unlicensed reptiles so that we can help combat the illegal wildlife trade and protect the biodiversity of the ACT,” said an ACT Parks and Conservation Service spokesperson.
Wildlife trafficking is a serious crime and is driving the decline of many species around the world.
The maximum penalty for wildlife trade offences under Australian law is 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $210,000 for individuals, or up to $1,050,000 for corporations.
Australia is a signatory to CITES and implements the Convention under its national environment law.