Illegal Fauna Trafficking, the Threat to the Security of Australia’s Native Animals

13 December 2017 Geoffrey Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme


Australia is dealing with a range of issues related to the natural environment. This includes, but is not limited to global warming, resulting in climate change, pollution, land clearing leading to a loss of biodiversity; invasive weeds and large populations of feral animals.  Some of these issues are well-studied and have a range of remedial and mitigating actions in place to address them. One less well documented and publicised issue is the concerning rise in the trafficking of Australian native fauna. This trade has the potential to threaten native fauna populations in some regions.


The illegal native fauna trafficking “industry” is growing. Data published by the Australian Institute of Criminology indicates a steadily increasing demand for the diverse range of animals unique to Australia. Australian native animals are seen as highly desirable by collectors in the United States, Europe and Japan who are prepared to pay large sums money for exhibits in private zoos – a Carnaby’s black cockatoo can fetch up to $30,000 and in Asia collectors are known to pay in excess of $10,000 for a bobtailed goanna. There is also a lucrative trade within Australia as collectors purchase illegally captured animals to be kept as pets or in private zoos or for breeding programmes. Existing also is an underground market for bush meat, considered by some to be a delicacy.

Illegally trapped animals are transported either domestically or internationally in a range of ways. Smugglers capture birds or collect their eggs which can be easily hidden. Reptiles, which are quiet and resilient, can be transported with financially acceptable mortality rates. They are smuggled in privately registered aircraft or vessels taking advantage of the sparce population and the isolation of northern Australia. They can be sent by mail or courier. They can also be concealed in carry-on baggage or check luggage. Trafficking operations are logistically diverse and range from individuals taking the odd animal as a pet, through semi-organised groups, to international crime syndicates running complex, multi-faceted trafficking systems. Those arrangements can include recruitment of unsuspecting backpackers as an opportune method of catching fauna, by offering them a chance to see and handle Australian animals.

The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection has primacy for monitoring wildlife trade and law enforcement relating to international fauna trafficking. Domestically, each State maintains legislation for licensing to keep native animals as well as regulation, detection and fines’ enforcement. State laws differ in their interpretation of what constitutes trafficking or smuggling. The lack of consistency can raise questions concerning the legitimacy of charges levelled on suspected fauna traffickers. The judicial complexities of environmental law can also  pose difficulties in establishing wrong doing. Penalties and punishments also vary between states. For example, convictions under national legislation can see fines of up to $110,000 and 10 years in prison. In Western Australia and Tasmania, however, offenders can be fined up to $10,000 with no capacity to imprison. Lenient penalties, particularly in Western Australia, mean organised and well-resourced fauna poachers can take advantage of the geographic isolation to establish large scale operations with little legal deterrent.

The lack of a coordinated, national approach makes reducing the instances of fauna trafficking difficult. This is particularly important when poaching operations are undertaken across state borders. These difficulties are compounded by resource limitations, particularly enforcement officer numbers. The Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions has only a limited number of active Compliance Coordinators responsible for issuing and monitoring of native fauna licenses as well as undertaking state-wide detection, surveillance and prosecution operations.

The high demand and high financial return for Australian native fauna, combined with the lack of sufficient resourcing, prioritisation of effort and lenient penalties, provide the motivation for the trade to continue. The potential outcome is that native fauna, already under threat from other environmental factors, may be lost.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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