Getting proactive with the Wildlife Crime Team

Department of Conservation —  23/11/2022

Did you know that we have a Wildlife Crime team? It’s a small group of highly motivated people who help enforce laws that protect Aotearoa’s biodiversity… oh and they have a dog! Recent deployments to airports and searches in suburban gardens are examples of their proactive work in detecting and preventing wildlife offences.

What do the Wildlife Crime team do?

The wildlife crime team focuses on the illegal importing, exporting, buying and selling of protected wildlife, both NZ native and exotic. They also do investigation work for the CITES team, and support warranted officers with their compliance work.

Wildlife crime is the fourth largest illegal trade in the world, and more common in New Zealand than you might think. In fact 18% of all offences in our enforcement database are under either the Trade in Endangered Species Act or Wildlife Act – which makes wildlife crime our second-most common offence behind Marine Reserve offending.

Toka, the reptile detection dog, with his handler Tapua, checks outbound flights, mail and freight for potentially smuggled reptiles.

The Team

The Wildlife Team members are Acting Principal Compliance Officer Matt, Compliance Officer Tapua, an Intelligence Analyst, and of course Toka the reptile detector dog.

Their work covers a broad range of wildlife-related incidents and investigations, many of which run for months at a time. They work domestically and at the border, and collaborate closely with overseas partner agencies including Interpol and other wildlife enforcement agencies.

As mentioned, the team has a specialised native reptile detector dog, Toka, who is worked by Tapua. Together, they work at our international airports and international mail centres, aiming to detect and prevent smuggling of our native reptile species. 

Northland green gecko, a.k.a. Gray’s tree gecko (Naultinus grayii)

The Intelligence Officer works behind the scenes to collate information from a variety of sources and deliver operational intelligence, which enables targeted and intelligence-led operations and investigations.

At the border the team works closely with Immigration, Customs and MPI, enabling them to identify and target persons of interest who are visiting New Zealand.

Recent proactive work

Earlier this year, we were alerted by Customs of a male who matched the profile of a reptile smuggler.  He had arrived mid-winter with the stated intention of camping and tramping around the South Island, and was due to depart via Wellington after several days in New Zealand.

Using our Warranted Officer network, we were able to establish that he had travelled around the top of the South Island.

We liaised with Customs to have him searched and spoken to during his departure. Toka was taken through to departures as passengers were boarding the plane and he was ‘run over’ each passenger.

On this occasion nothing was found, however the team felt that the traveller was carrying out a test run of our borders, which is a common occurrence.

In October we were alerted to the arrival of an Australian national, who was on a five-day holiday with his family.  He had been convicted of smuggling two box pythons into Australia a few years ago. 

We arrived at Queenstown and commenced the operation with Customs.  The bags were searched.  Both father and daughter were ‘flagged’ and directed to Matt and Compliance Officer Vic for questioning. Nothing was found, but the subject expressed a very keen interest in tuatara.

Tapua worked Toka hard in this new environment and he was ‘run over’ three plane loads of passengers, who took a keen interest in our work.

Not all offences are about smuggling, though. Wildlife Act offences include enthusiasts who keep wildlife as pets without the required permit.

In May this year, a man was ordered to pay $500 to Save the Kiwi for removing a venomous sea snake from a North Island beach.

Hydrophis platurus by Luis Correa,  Creative Commons CC BY 4.0

Other work has included a recent national operation auditing reptile permit holders.

This work sends strong signals to the ‘Herping’ community that we are taking our responsibility as a regulator very seriously, and where we find or suspect offending we will investigate and take action.

More seized reptiles.

We have responsibilities under many laws to protect and preserve our unique species, environment and heritage. These laws include offences for actions that can harm or affect conservation resources. We encourage and promote compliance with the rules (laws) and recognise that most people want to comply and do the right thing.

You can help us protect our conservation resources by reporting illegal or suspicious activity through our 24-hour DOC emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468) All calls and personal details are treated confidentially.

Find out more about our compliance and law enforcement work here