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Smuggling Australia's ecological treasures

Smuggling of an unusual kind is becoming fashionable in Australia and New Zealand. Rare, protected birds have become a smuggler's favorite, with illegal traffic in spiders and reptiles also worrying officials.

Bird smuggling has become a big-money racket, spiders and reptiles a dangerous one, though with usually no profit involved.

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Most money is to be made out of parrot smuggling, but various types of finches are also high on the criminals' list. Though less valuable, they are smaller and therefore easier to conceal.

Officials suggest the racket may be worth $10 million to $20 million a year to the smugglers, but cannot put an exact dollar value on the rackets.

"It's a multimillion-dollar illegal industry and it's growing bigger," an Australian Customs official acknowledged in Sydney.

Many birds are smuggled out of Australia to New Zealand. From there they can be legally exported to North America. Smugglers show considerable ingenuity in concealing the birds. For instance:

* Several dozen galahs, a type of parrot, were found recently in a suitcase in New Zealand, crammed under clothing and individually rolled in wire netting.

* An Australian smuggler arriving at Wellington Airport in New Zealand would exchange his bird-stuffed shoulder bag for one filled with clothing that had been stashed in the washroom earlier by a confederate working as a janitor. The janitor would then smuggle the bird bag out of the airport. the scheme worked for several months before being uncovered.

* A passenger aboard a liner cruising from Australia to New Zealand wore his heavy overcoat whenever he went ashore in Auckland. Thanks to a tip-off, customs men were able to put an end to his regular run between the two countries. Hanging inside his coat were a number of nylon stockings. Each one was filled with small parrots.

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* A young man told a New Zealand Customs officer he was in a hurry to get to the maternity hospital where his wife was having a baby. But the large radio he was carrying aroused the officer's suspicion. Inside were several dozen drugged finches.

* A tip-off led New Zealand Customs officers to open up some tennis-ball canisters carried by a passenger from Australia. Instead of tennis balls, each contained a small drugged parrot with its tail feathers trimmed to make it fit.

* As a customs boarding party approached a yacht heading for a stretch of lonely New Zealand coastline, hundreds of Australian birds were liberated. But others were found dead on board.

* In New Zealand ports, customs officers regularly find empty birdcages in the holds of freighters arriving from Australia. Crewmen inevitably claim to know nothing about birds smuggled ashore at night.

New Zealand authorities say that behind some of the gangs are New Zealanders who generally employ couriers. These couriers never know who heads the gang. For a round trip from New Zealand to Australia to pick up a consignment of birds , a courier reportedly earns $1,000, with first-class air tickets and accommodations in top hotels. In case of trouble, lawyers ar provided and fines paid. But in any case, penalties in New Zealand are light, with fines of $200 and $300 cmmon.

The smugglers' profit can be enormous. Galahs, for example, are so common that they are regarded as pests in parts of Queensland, where dozens will perch on a single tree. Australian city dwellers will pay $10 to $30 for one -- but a par of these gray and pink members of the parrot family can fetch $1,000 in North America. The United States is the biggest market, followed by West Germany and the Netherlands.

Golden-shouldered and black cockatoos, two rare members of the parrot family, fetch up to $10,000 each. Several other varieties command prices of about $5, 000.

Customs officers in Auckland say the smugglers often have links to seemingly legitimate aviaries. If birds are found, it is claimed they were legally bred in the New Zealand aviary.

But these aviaries usually have only a few dozen New Zealand-bred native Australian birds.The rest are smuggled. The aviaries also provide a cover so that the birds smuggled from Australia can be sent to the US as legitimate New Zealand exports. Most birds from New Zealand enter the US legally in this way. There, wholealers sell them to dealers in the US and Canada.

The organizers of the New Zealand-based gangs are alleged to have interests in gambling, loan-sharking, and other crimes.

"We know who they are -- but getting proof is another matter," Les Wyatt, Auckland collector of customs, says.

"Crackdowns seemed to be beating the problem in the second half of the 1970s, but now it's starting up again," he adds. "The reason is that there's big money to be made."

Australian birds are not always smuggled through New Zealand. Some go via Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, and other contries. They are usually allowed to recuperate there before being smuggled to North America or Europe in air or sea freight.

Australia Customs officers estimate that as many as 50 percent of the birds die in transit from thirst, hunger, suffocation, or drug overdose. But profits are so huge that the smugglers can accept this loss.

The birds are usually doped with cough medications, brandy, or, most recently , Valium, a strong tranquilizer.

But an Australian Customs spokesman says the smugglers have become more sophisticated. "We've confiscated little battery-powered air conditioners that were placed with birds in cardboard boxes," the official said.

"Also, some of the smuggling gangs are now concentrating on eggs rather than birds, because of the lower risk. The egss are carefully packaged, concealed, and kept warm on flight to North America. Once there, they're transferred to more sophisticated incubators."

In Australia, smugglers catch the birds in the wild, mostly in Queensland, Norther Territory, and South Australia. Some types are protected -- but in the country's vast outback, detection is easy to evade.

Small-time smugglers raid zoos, pet stores, and private aviaries very selectively to obtain particular varieties of birds for illegal exports.

Law enforcement officials lament the fact that first offenders who attempt to smuggle birds out of Australia are fined only $1,000. A second offense can bring a similar fine and the possibility of a two-year jail sentence.

But, customs investigators note, second offenders are rare because the smuggling rings keep changing their couriers. And the ring- leaders themselves are seldom nabbed.

"The smuggling of Australian birds looks like it is remaining a growing problem for us in New Zealand because of overseas demand," Mr. Wyatt says. An Australian Customs spokesman observes that the craving for exotic pets overseas is threatening some bird species with extinction.

In contrast, the traffic in deadly spiders and snakes is usually -- though by no means always -- not for profit. It is largely an international swapping network among collectors. These collectors are just as clever in their smuggling methods, however. They send the snakes and spiders through the mail in those padded envelopes available at post offices and stationery stores.

Most of the traffic is with the US, Canada, and West Germany, where most of the collectors live, australian Customs agent say.

Australia, with its diverse reptiles and spiders and its excellent airmail communications, is a popular source of supply.

A customs spokesman in Sydney says all types of native snakes, some of them highly poisonous, are being sent out of the country by mail. So are lizards, tortoises, and turtles.Recently, a traffic in spiders has been detected.

"Though money isn't usually involved, we are aware that collectors in West Germany have offered about $500 for funnel-web spiders," the customs spokesman said.

The funnel-web spider is Australia's deadliest. No antidote has been discovered for its bite, but the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Mebourne recently developed a serum that is now being used experimentally in monkeys.

Because many repitles and spiders do not have to be fed each day and the cargo holds of jumbo jets are pressurized, a three- to five- day air trip generally does hem no harm. Customs men in Sydney cite the case of 23 small lizards that were sent to the US in a padded envelope, where they arrived within a few days.

But the addressee, suspecting he was under US Customs surveillance, marked the envelope "return to sender -- no such person" and put it back in the mail.

The envelope, for some reason, was delayed on its surface mail journey back to Australia (a postal worker evidently didn't feel it warranted airmail return) and it did not arrive in Sydney until three months later.

By then it smelled terrible. Customs agents, called in by Australia Post officials, found half the lizards dead, but to their astonishment the rest had apparently no ill effects.

Smugglers usually put snakes and other reptiles inside a cloth bag, securely fastened at the top, and then put the bag into the padded envelope for airmailings. Small boxes, rather than bags, are generally used for spiders.

With so many padded envelopes "moving internationally, our job has been made that much more difficult," the customs spokesman says. "They are ideal for sending reptiles and spiders out of this country -- and sending other varieties here from overseas. there's no way of stopping all the traffic.

"We estimate several hundred of these packages enter and leave Australia each year. The North American and European collectors don't have contacts only in Australia, so there must be several thousand envelopes of reptiles and spiders moving through mails there every year."

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