As summer ramps up, so does the rate of one of the biggest criminal industries in the world, which has western Queensland as a hotspot for activity.
While most think of elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns when the topic of illegal harvesting and smuggling of wildlife is raised, Australia’s unique birds and reptiles are part of a worldwide trade estimated to be worth between $60-$200 billion.
And it’s an industry with links to some of Australia’s most unsavoury organised crime syndicates, according to a police inspector.
Western Queensland is a popular area for poachers, partly thanks to its isolation and partly because it’s home to many of the most desired, and therefore financially rewarding, creatures.
As well as increasing their own surveillance through the hotter months, when animals such as lizards and snakes are more active, police in the region have urged local landholders and townspeople to be vigilant.
According to Birdsville’s Senior Constable Stephan Pursell, people should be on the lookout for anything that seems out of place.
“It could be a van that’s not set up for camping, or someone asking for the best place to photograph animals,” he said.
“The other thing they’re doing is cutting fences and leaving gates open.
“You could look for other signs such as people who are out all night and sleep through the day.
“Car registration numbers are ideal but all these things can be reported to us, or to the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, via a complaint form.”
The detection of those involved in the trade in western Queensland has evolved into a partnership between the Longreach police patrol group, Environment and Science Wildlife staff and Queensland Boating and Fisheries.
Constable Pursell said police from Windorah, Bedourie and Thargomindah, as well as himself at Birdsville, undertook joint activities which, last summer, intercepted someone at least once a month that resulted in charges laid.
Most recently, Windorah police arrested and charged three men from Brisbane and Gatton on November 19, in relation to taking and keeping protected animals. The men are expected to appear before the Longreach Magistrates Court on December 5.
The Longreach patrol group’s previous inspector, Mark Henderson, said researchers and wildlife enthusiasts often frequented western areas to study animals in the habitat and so, to the public eye, many of the people involved in the trade appeared to be ordinary civilians or scientists.
“I’m not sure they’ve made the link that some of these people have organised crime backgrounds,” he said. “Communities should be very aware of their presence.”
Constable Pursell said the majority of people he and his cohorts had arrested had been Australian with international connections, and some had had associations with criminal motorcycle gangs.
“They are sending out people with experience – they’re handling some of the most poisonous animals in the world.”
Windorah’s Senior Constable Rob Edwards said that as well as making substantial amounts of money in the illegal trade of native wildlife, anywhere between $5000 and $500,000 depending on the rarity, western Queensland’s plants and soil were also being collected and sold.
“They are potentially committing offences by taking items from the environment to simulate environments where the animals have come from.
“Financial gain can be made from taking sand, rocks and plants and selling them.
“For example, authorities state that red sand on the market can average $30 for five kilograms.”
According to Constable Pursell, the bottom line was that apart from being illegal, the activity was disturbing the balance of nature.
“It’s a criminal activity and someone is making a lot of money, but we just don’t like to see nature disturbed,” he said. “And then you’ve got venomous animals in the post, anywhere in the world.”
While describing Windorah as more of a likely centre for activity, being not as far for someone to go to meld back into civilisation, Constable Pursell said the activity appeared to be dropping off a little.
“That could be because us being proactive is working, or they could be going somewhere else, or they could be being more covert.”
In Queensland, taking or possessing native animals without a permit carries permits of up to $378,450 or two years imprisonment.
People can report activities through Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.