Illegal Wildlife Trade in Australia

Sahar Adatia.


If you’ve ever watched an episode of Border Security, you’ll surely recall the whacky wildlife travellers have attempted to casually smuggle across national borders.

From rare types of fish to baby turtles, smugglers are relentless in their trafficking endeavours, leaving border security officers startled, but certainly not surprised.

One such case that captured media outlets this year was an incident at Vienna airport which saw dozens of protected chameleons discovered inside a suitcase.

And while the offender thought he may get away with the act given the creatures are known for their camouflaging competence, he was indeed unable to outsmart the x-ray machine.

The finding took place in January 2021 and the smuggler a 56-year-old man, who was not identified by police.

As the man went to leave the baggage area, officials swiftly intercepted, believing there to be living animals inside his suitcase.

Indeed, some 74 chameleons were found within the suitcase, hidden in socks and boxes.

“It quickly emerged that the suitcase contained living creatures which, while they would have been well camouflaged in a natural environment, ultimately did not outwit the X-ray machine,” authorities said in a statement.

The man was arrested and faced fines of up to 6,000 euros, according to the Austria’s Finance Ministry.

The Ministry also advised that the protected chameleons had been intended for sale in the neighbouring Czech Republic, while on the black market, the creatures would have sold for about 37,000 euros – almost $60,000 in Australian currency.

Meanwhile, the chameleons were “immediately transported” to the Austrian capital’s Schönbrunn Zoo, which said that two of the creatures had already died on the way to Vienna.

The rest were nursed back to recovery in proper terrariums where environmental conditions were provided to meet their needs.

“The reptiles are now housed in terraria which fulfil their specific needs, including high levels of ground moisture and an airy and cool environment,” authorities said.

It is understood the chameleons were from the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania – where the offender had travelled from – and ranged in age from one week old to adults.

Austrian Finance Minister, Gernot Blümel, addressed the matter and said the work carried out by customs was crucial to both impeding traffickers and the welfare of the animals.

“The vital work undertaken by customs also regularly assists in ending the suffering of animals and putting a stop to unscrupulous wildlife traffickers,” Austrian Finance Minister Blümel said.

“Customs Administration not only ensures the protection of Austrian businesses and consumers, but it makes an indispensable contribution to animal welfare and the preservation of endangered species too.”

Chameleons are an extremely unique branch of the lizard group of reptiles and vary across 160 species.

They live in warm habitats, varying from to deserts, and while almost half of the world’s chameleon species are native to Madagascar, they are also found in Africa, southern Europe and Sri Lanka.

Chameleons are able to change the colour of their skin due to special colour pigment cells under their skin called chromatophores.

This allows them to create combined patterns of pink, blue, red, orange, green, black, brown, yellow and purple.

While chameleons change colour to camouflage, this is not necessarily the main reason why they do this.

Some will show darker colours to reflect when they are angry or trying to scare other creatures.

Illegal Wildlife Trade in Australia

When it comes to wildlife trade, Australia has strict laws in place.

Of significance is section 303EK of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth), which prohibits a person from importing a specimen if the specimen is a regulated live specimen.

Any breach of this law will attract a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine of $210,000. Exemptions to this are outlined in Part 2 of the list in section 303EB, or when the specimen’s been imported ion compliance with a permit that has been issued under section 303GD.

A “regulated live specimen” refers to a live animal or plant that does not appear within the list reflected in section 303EB of the same act.

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