Heroin is so passe. Sure, strapping twenty bricks of China White to your torso and power-walking through customs might have proven a reliable business model for the past fifty years or so. But any businessperson worth their salt appreciates the need to innovate and diversify—to find new ways of getting the people what they want.
And what do people want right now? Lizards.
Organised crime groups have moved into the lucrative trade of reptile-smuggling: collecting highly sought-after native Australian species and shipping them overseas to destinations like China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Russia. In some cases the reptile racket appears to be replacing more high-risk goods like drugs and tobacco, News Corp reports, with authorities and border officials having documented the seizure of hundreds of specimens over the past few months.
Those specimens range from geckos to skinks, blue-tongued and spiny-tailed lizards, as well as more exotic varieties like Western Australian shinglebacks. It is understood that smugglers post lists of wanted animals and the price they’re willing to pay to social media groups, while locals on the ground steal and supply them in order to make a quick buck. The reptiles are distributed through international mail centres and sold—most likely to private zoos and collectors—for thousands of dollars apiece.
“Some reptiles were found stuffed in socks within cereal and chip boxes, others had their legs taped together,” an Australian Border Force report reads. “The detections have been referred to relevant state and federal agencies for further investigation.”
ABF Acting assistant commissioner Craig Palmer suggested that there is high demand on the black market for Australia’s local wildlife, and that crime groups have recently identified a smuggling avenue where huge amounts of money can be made.
“Wildlife smuggling is a lucrative trade and we know individuals and criminal syndicates can make significant profits by exporting and selling Australia’s unique native fauna overseas, particularly in Asia,” he said.
“We are working with our colleagues at Australia Post, industry, consumer groups, as well as federal and state environment agencies, to increase our ability to identify who is involved and where they are sending these animals.”
Under Australian law, the maximum penalty for anyone found guilty of wildlife trade offences is 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $210,000.