The reptile smugglers
There’s a dark side to herpetoculture—the hobby of keeping reptiles. Attempts to bring exotic reptiles into New Zealand put native species and ecosystems at risk, while demand from international collectors leads to the poaching of endemic geckos from fragile populations. With three-quarters of our reptiles classed as endangered, we can’t afford for any to be stolen.
Like many stories, it starts with dinosaurs. Harrison Sollis has always been fascinated by cold-blooded creatures, and as soon as he found out that people could keep reptiles as pets, he was determined to have some of his own. It took years of persuasion to win his parents over, but on his 17th birthday, he became the proud owner of a baby bearded dragon.
He was hooked. He got involved with the New Zealand Herpetological Society, and his collection quickly expanded to include leopard geckos, Cunningham’s skinks, and a Greek spur-thighed tortoise. He was spending hundreds of dollars on enormous glass enclosures and ceramic heat lamps—as well as about $40 a week on vegetables and live insects to feed his growing menagerie.
As Sollis researched new species, he noticed something odd about reptile-keeping. Demand was far greater than supply, particularly for rare exotic species, such as shingleback skinks and tortoises. New Zealand’s blanket ban on importing pet reptiles, coupled with the fact there were few keepers breeding foreign species, meant that interesting, unusual animals were expensive and difficult to obtain.
Then, browsing reptile forums online, Sollis met a man who said he could provide any reptiles Sollis and his friends wanted, as long as they followed his instructions.
“It seemed like a dream come true,” says Sollis. “I didn’t know the real risks.”
It was an “infallible deal”, said the man. It was also smuggling, but it seemed to Sollis like a harmless crime. The man was based in Sweden, but he said that if Sollis got caught in New Zealand, he might receive a small fine, like a speeding ticket. Anyway, there wasn’t much chance of that happening, he said, and Sollis trusted him. After all, it felt as though they’d become friends.
Sollis carefully picked the species he wanted—an iguana, five veiled chameleons and a corn snake—to have as little conservation impact as possible. They weren’t trafficked species, and he figured they wouldn’t do any damage in New Zealand.
“They were the most commonly kept, almost-domesticated animals that wouldn’t have been wild-caught,” he says. “They would also have a very low risk of causing any harm to native species. As iguanas are vegetarian and chameleons are very sensitive, all of them would also have a low chance of surviving outside their enclosures in New Zealand’s cold, wet climate.”
Most of all, Sollis was excited to have new additions to his collection.
“There were many YouTube videos of iguanas and chameleons being awesome pets,” he says. “The snake was to be my friend’s, who just thought they were cool, but I was more of a lizard guy at the time.”
In October 2014, the man packaged up the reptiles and sent them to Sollis in the post, but the parcel was intercepted at the Auckland International Mail Centre by Lilly the beagle, half of a Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) detector dog team. Although the package was addressed to Sollis’s friend, MPI investigators tracked Sollis down. He was charged with attempting to possess unauthorised goods, convicted, and order to pay $15,000 in costs.
But Sollis’s contact was right about one thing—not all such parcels are intercepted.
“I have heard multiple stories similar to mine, except they are not caught,” says Sollis, “and these young people are responsible for importing or physically smuggling unknowingly illegal reptiles of all kinds.”
The international movement of animals is closely regulated for a reason—they may carry harmful foreign bacteria that could devastate native populations which have no resistance. There’s also the risk of exotic species escaping, or being abandoned in the wild by pet owners, and establishing an invasive population which preys on native animals or competes for food sources.
Northland green geckos should be found only in New Zealand, yet YouTube hosts dozens of videos of them enjoying the French countryside.
New Zealand is home to a host of magnificent reptiles—fern-like lizards and brilliantly marked geckos. Geckos in particular command a lot of attention on the international reptile market. Havocscope, a website that tracks global black-market information, lists New Zealand geckos as selling for thousands of dollars each in Europe.
Part of their popularity is down to the fact that they are different from geckos found anywhere else in the world. They’re generally active during the day, whereas most geckos are nocturnal. They can live for more than 40 years, and most give birth to live young, rather than laying eggs. The best-known species have vivid colours and distinctive markings—the jewelled gecko’s diamondesque stripes are as unique as a human fingerprint.
“They’re gorgeous,” says Department of Conservation herpetologist Lynn Adams. “I’ve been working with them for years, and every time I see a gecko, I still can’t believe how beautiful it is.”
Other people think so, too. In 2009, a 58-year-old man from Germany, Hans Kubus, was caught at Christchurch International Airport with 44 geckos and skinks in a specially sewn compartment in his underwear. In 2010, another German man, 55-year-old Manfred Bachmann, was caught at the same airport with 16 jewelled geckos in plastic tubes.
Both men are suspected to be part of wider reptile-smuggling networks. Kubus’s 2009 trip to New Zealand was his fourth since 2001, and on his previous visit, in 2008, he had been accompanied by a reptile dealer from Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Bachmann was a link in a longer chain. The geckos he was carrying had been captured by 28-year-old Mexican chef Gustavo Toledo-Albarran, then passed on to 31-year-old Swiss resident Thomas Price, who handed them over to Bachmann. All three received jail sentences. Bachmann was supposed to deliver the geckos to a fourth person, who was never caught. Five years later, Toledo-Albarran was arrested in Ecuador for smuggling 11 iguanas from the Galapagos Islands in his luggage.
Gecko populations are fragile, and smuggling risks tipping them over the edge. This is because population groups are tiny—many species are confined to a small area, such as a couple of patches of forest, a beach, an island, or a peninsula. Poachers target pregnant females, as native lizards are slow to breed, producing only one or two young every year.
Many geckos are pollinators, which means that losing them from an ecosystem has a cascade of effects. Geckos in the Hoplodactylus genus consume the nectar of pōhutukawa and native flax flowers, and help carry their pollen to other trees. Along with Leiolopisma and Cyclodina skinks, they eat the fruit of kawakawa, maidenhair, coprosma and māhoe plants. Seeds pass unharmed through their digestive tracts to germinate elsewhere.
For conservation workers, it’s a struggle to help the many species living in hard-to-access areas. Lynn Adams says efforts have often been hampered by the unusual habitats that different species call home.
“White-bellied skinks are critically endangered, but they live in alpine scree,” she says. “Protecting their range with a fence doesn’t work, because when there’s a big snow dump, the weight either pushes the fence over or lets predators walk right over the top. Sinbad skinks are also highly threatened—they live on a vertical cliff face, which makes them very hard to reach and near-impossible to protect from mice.”
Mice are one of the most serious threats to lizard populations, and won’t be addressed as part of Predator Free 2050’s exclusive focus on rats, stoats and possums.
“Even a small number of mice can have a big impact on a population,” says Adams. “We’re losing reptiles through a lot of avenues, including habitat loss and these introduced mammals. Smuggling is tipping the balance even further.”
New Zealand used to have a taskforce dedicated to preventing wildlife crime. The Wildlife Enforcement Group (WEG), formed in 1992 from representatives of MPI, DOC and the New Zealand Customs Service, was involved in bringing 24 cases before the court before it was disbanded in 2014.
Former investigator Stuart Williamson says he was never given a reason for the closure of WEG.
“I believe the demise of WEG has left a void,” he says. “We were highly respected overseas and the WEG example was held up as a best-practice model for other countries to consider following.
“I think we did do pretty good work around profiling and interdicting persons involved in smuggling endemic wildlife.”
MPI takes a different view. By 2012, WEG was no longer fit for purpose, said a spokesperson. A review found WEG was too limited in its scope, as it focused only on wildlife crime, whereas DOC, MPI and Customs were responsible for many different types of environmental crime.
“There was also no co-ordinated whole-of-government focus on environmental crime, and that was perceived as a risk,” said MPI in a statement.
According to documents released by DOC under the Official Information Act, a 2012 working group recommended WEG’s scope be expanded to cover all environmental crime sectors, including unregulated fishing, illegal logging and climate-change crimes. The new, larger group would be called the Environmental Crime Network, and would operate out of Custom House in Auckland, which is occupied by MPI and Customs.
This never came to pass. Instead, MPI withdrew WEG investigators to their parent agencies, saying staff needed to focus on the legislation for which their department was responsible.
In 2014, it was decided to operate the network from a digital hub, but this too has fallen by the wayside. There is now no Environmental Crime Network, though MPI says it exists in theory through its commitment to sharing intelligence with other agencies.
Today, the task of policing reptile smuggling is split between DOC, which is responsible for stopping people taking reptiles out of the country, and MPI, which is mandated with preventing banned species from arriving. Both agencies are eager to address concerns that the demise of WEG has left a void in wildlife protection. In 2017, DOC, MPI and Customs signed a new memorandum of understanding—another commitment between the agencies to work together.
But having all three organisations working together in the same physical location was part of what made WEG successful, says a source who asked to remain anonymous.
No one has been prosecuted for smuggling native species out of the country since the disbandment of WEG. The last successful prosecution took place in 2012, in a case that illustrates the benefits of close collaboration. When 27-year-old German tourist Andreas Hahn arrived in New Zealand, Customs staff noticed he was carrying maps of gecko territories. His movements were tracked by WEG, and when investigators searched his campervan, they found four jewelled geckos concealed within.
Ecologist Carey Knox became part of a WEG project when he was studying jewelled gecko populations on the Otago Peninsula.
“I was estimating the number at several different sites on the peninsula, and I photographed their markings to keep track of them,” he says. “I ended up building up a database of all the known animals at the site.”
Towards the end of his project, WEG contacted him with pictures of jewelled geckos they had confiscated from Manfred Bachmann. Knox matched the geckos’ patterns with individuals he had studied, enabling the lizards to be returned to their home areas.
Since then, Knox says, some have slipped through the cracks—he’s recognised geckos from populations he studied being advertised for sale overseas.
“There’s this website they used to put them up on—I’d see this gecko I photographed a few years ago.
It’s quite depressing at times, but I try to keep it in perspective. There’s only so much you can do—you can’t stand out there and guard the geckos.”
While prosecutions of reptile smugglers have ceased, attempts to smuggle them have not. In July 2017, a Marlborough green gecko named Graham was kidnapped from a terrarium at the Fiordland National Park visitor centre, where he’d lived for the last 30 years. The following month, a lunch box stuffed with 58 protected lizards was found in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens. All but four of the reptiles were dead, in an apparent botched smuggling attempt.
DOC national operations director Hilary Aikman says DOC is involved in initiatives to protect native reptiles on every level. In 2017, several staff travelled to Singapore to collaborate with Interpol on a reptile-trafficking project.
“There are different types of information gathering,” says Aikman. “We have staff on the ground, warranted officers around the country, and we’re quite involved with Interpol.”
Yet DOC appears to be stymied by a lack of information from border-protection agencies. It has received only two tip-offs from Interpol related to wildlife crime since 2012, according to data released under the Official Information Act.
MPI northern investigations team manager Simon Anderson says the ministry has more resources than before focusing on tackling biodiversity risks, such as illegally imported animals, as well as a new biosecurity intelligence unit in the process of being staffed. This will collect international intelligence on potential risks to New Zealand’s biosecurity.
“Our digital hub will never replace people on the ground,” says Anderson. “The hub’s not replacing the investigative effort—that goes on.”
Meanwhile, Sollis has channelled his passion for reptiles into a drive to save them. A year after his conviction, he was helping to prepare Duvaucel’s geckos for release at Tawharanui, a wildlife sanctuary north of Auckland.
It was a volunteer job, but it was also an opportunity to prove himself. The geckos were released into tubular hidey-holes, which Sollis surrounded with tracking tunnels—cards with ink pads to record gecko footprints—so researchers could learn how far the reptiles travelled after they were set free.
For four months after the geckos’ release, Sollis helped to track them. He also monitored mouse populations and maintained bait lines in order to maximise the new population’s chance of success.
The tracking tunnels showed that more geckos than expected continued to use the hides—a sign of success. The geckos had been bred in captivity at Massey University in Auckland, where Sollis is now working towards a master’s degree in reptile conservation and ecology.
He says he’s mostly come to terms with the consequences of his criminal record—though recently he missed out on a family trip to Australia, because he didn’t apply in time to enter the country with a conviction. He’s determined to keep working with reptiles.
“It is scary for future job prospects, especially as it will always be a significant hurdle for me to do any reptile conservation work.”