Smugglers use web to locate rare NZ lizards

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 16/09/2012
Gecko
DOC
Rare creatures such as this jewelled gecko are often the target of smuggling operations.

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Reptile collectors are using scientific papers and online photos to identify sites where geckos can be caught for smuggling out of New Zealand.

Dozens of the endangered lizards disappear from their native habitat each year, many at the hands of suspected organised criminal groups that sell them via the web.

Experts say harsher punishments for wildlife smugglers go only some way towards deterring the trade because the demand is so great.

“It will have some impact. If there's a species in another country attracting lower penalties, maybe they'll go there,” herpetologist Carey Knox, who monitors Otago Peninsula's jewelled gecko population, says. “But I'm not naive enough to think it will stop the problem.”

New Zealand geckos are prized because they gave birth to live young and are active during the day.

In the past three years, seven people have been caught trying to smuggle protected geckos and skinks out of the South Island. One group included Manfred Bachmann, a German from Uganda, who was sentenced to 15 weeks' jail after being caught with 16 jewelled geckos packed in tubes.

They had been caught by Thomas Benjamin Price, 31, of Switzerland, and Gustavo Eduardo Toledo-Albarran, 28, of Mexico, who caught the geckos on Otago Peninsula, passing them on to Bachmann. At least nine of the geckos, believed to be worth $200,000, were pregnant.

Wildlife Enforcement Group investigator Stu Williamson said some smugglers were acting for collectors and had maps provided by them or by syndicates which detailed locations.

Fellow investigator Dylan Swain said the use of scientific papers to target populations was a worrying trend. Scientists were asked to code locations to help protect the species, but photos of geckos being released were being posted online, where they were monitored by collectors. “Since one release, 11 of the geckos have been poached again.”

The geckos usually ended up on a German website, where traders claimed they had been bred in captivity. Williamson says there is little they can do. “We would like to close it down but we can't.”

He hoped the new punishments, which increase the maximum penalty for smuggling the likes of tuatara, geckos and parrots from six months' jail or a $100,000 fine, to up to five years and $300,000, would go some way towards deterring poachers.

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- Sunday Star Times

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