According to Stanislavas Huzhiavichus, there is no better crime than trading rare animals.
“Smugglers of narcotics and weapons, they know nothing about the better trade,” said the 30-year-old Ukrainian, a convicted rare bird smuggler who is ringing the bell for the first time about the methods of a global multi-million dollar smuggling operation. illegal dollar trade. “Of course, it’s animal trade.”
Huzhiavichus, a trained veterinarian, worked for a ring of rare birds for almost a year. His job was to keep animals alive, despite often appalling conditions. Later he operated as a courier throughout Europe.
Using Cites, a licensing system set up to regulate trade in rare species, the group traded some of the world’s most endangered birds from their countries of origin to high-profile alleged conservationists in Europe.
Huzhiavichus said rare birds like the palm cockatoo sold for more than 30 times their purchase value, making the group about €50,000 (£42,000) per trip, with very little cost.
Huzhiavichus was arrested by Austrian authorities in April 2018 while on a courier trip to Vienna and spent four months in an Austrian prison before returning to Ukraine, where reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) tracked him down last October and he voted. agree to share his story.
During his time in prison, gang members and drug traffickers initially mocked him as the “birdcatcher”. When he explained how profitable the rare bird trade could be, their bewilderment turned to admiration, with some inmates suggesting that they do business together.
The European Union and the UK support the fight against wildlife trafficking abroad, but experts say it’s breathtakingly easy to smuggle wildlife into the bloc.
Huzhiavichus said he could easily smuggle more than 1,000 rare birds across Europe within six months. He said his boss’s favorite method was to bribe train conductors in Kiev to compartmentalize the birds and smuggle them into the EU.
Huzhiavichus said he then collected them from major train stations in cities such as Budapest, from where he could drive anywhere within the Schengen zone without fear of inspections.
A second route involved payouts to corrupt border officials at a border crossing between Ukraine and Slovakia.
On his first assignment, in September 2017, he picked up four birds of paradise in Košice, Slovakia, loaded them into an EU-licensed rental car and left for northern France for the Channel Tunnel to the UK.
The few times Huzhiavichus was stopped, he handed over a handful of permits. None of them applied to the birds he was transporting, but they were happy with the border officials, he said. Huzhiavichus said the birds were eventually sold to an associate of a British collector.
Wildlife traders have learned to partner with a legitimate trade in protected species that has about one million transactions per year.
Legitimate industry is governed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While many animals are protected, Cites lists a number of exceptions under which nearly 38,000 otherwise protected species can be traded for a profit, including those born in captivity. This can be exploited by traffickers, experts say.
The paperwork issued by Cites works like a passport: any animal crossing an international border must have a unique permit, which is shown to officials in order to pass. But it’s rare for a border officer to tell the difference between a real and a fraudulent permit — or between one bird and another.
This means that once a trafficker is licensed, “you can use one and the same over and over,” Huzhiavichus said. In some cases, he said he used the same permit to smuggle 20 different poached birds.
A permit found in his possession by Austrian police, for a palm cockatoo, had been issued by the German Federal Agency for Conservation of Nature (BfN) to a wildlife park in West Germany, which said it had used the permit to track down a palm cockatoo. to import for another breeder. It is not clear how the original document or a copy of it ended up in the hands of the smugglers.
Huzhiavichus said the smugglers also used other techniques to circumvent the CITES rules. Captive-bred birds, which can be legally traded, are like juveniles fitted with a small metal ring around one leg that has a unique serial number engraved on it. Because these rings are too small to be placed on adult birds, this system has long been considered a foolproof way to ensure that wild birds cannot be traded.
But Huzhiavichus said his group found a way around this, by using a special tool to put a larger ring on an adult bird, then squeezing it tighter so it looked real.
After his first successful trip to the UK, Huzhiavichus said his boss started to trust him as a courier and the orders were pouring in.
One of the exchanges, he claimed, was with the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) in Germany, which promotes itself as a protector of endangered parrots and is registered as a zoo.
Lawyers for the ACTP said it acted in full compliance with the law and had no information about wildlife trade rings. The lawyers said that ACTP did discuss the purchase of birds with an employee of Huzhiavichus, but that their client was not aware at the time that there was or could be evidence of dubious or even illegal activity related to him. In particular, they said, the person identified himself through identification papers and handed over all the required papers, and in any case, the sale did not take place.
Huzhiavichus said he brought palm cockatoos to an architect in Bratislava and sold long-tailed parakeets to a woman in the Netherlands. He once set up shop in a large bird market in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where he sold less clearly traded birds and said he brought in €150,000 in one day.
“Compared to the smuggling of weapons, drugs or even human trafficking,” said Huzhiavichus, “[bird smuggling] is the best company because there is no responsibility for anything. That is, even in Europe there is no responsibility for it as such.”
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