There is no better crime than the trafficking of rare animals, according to Stanislavas Huzhiavichus.
“Narcotic and gun smugglers don’t know the best deals,” said the 30-year-old Ukrainian, a convicted rare bird smuggler who for the first time denounces the methods of a global multimillion-dollar illegal trade. “Sure, it’s business with animals.”
Huzhiavichus, a qualified veterinarian, worked for nearly a year for a rare bird trafficking club. His job was to keep the animals alive despite the often bleak conditions. He later worked as a courier throughout Europe.
Taking advantage of CITES, a permit system created to govern trade in rare species, the group has trafficked some of the world’s most endangered birds from their home countries to presumed high-profile conservationists in Europe.
Huzhiavichus said rare birds like the palm cockatoo were sold for more than 30 times their purchase value, earning the group around € 50,000 (£ 42,000) each trip, with very little expense.
Arrested by Austrian authorities on a courier trip to Vienna in April 2018, Huzhiavichus 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 year. October and agreed to share his story.
During his time in prison, gang members and drug traffickers at first mocked him as the “bird hunter”. When he explained how profitable trafficking in rare birds could be, their perplexity turned to admiration, with some inmates offering to go into business together.
The European Union and the UK support efforts against trafficking in wild animals overseas, but experts say it is incredibly easy to smuggle wild animals into the bloc.
Huzhiavichus said he was able to easily smuggle more than 1,000 rare birds across Europe within six months. He said his boss’s preferred method was bribing train conductors in Kiev to lock birds in compartments and smuggle them into the EU.
Huzhiavichus said he then picked them up at major train stations in cities like Budapest, from where he could drive anywhere within the Schengen zone without fearing inspections.
A second route involved rewards for corrupt border officials at a crossing between Ukraine and Slovakia.
During his first assignment in September 2017, he collected four birds of paradise in Košice, Slovakia, loaded them into an EU-registered rental car, and headed to northern France for the Channel Tunnel in the UK. .
The few times Huzhiavichus was stopped, he presented a handful of permits. None of them turned to the birds he was carrying, but they satisfied the border officials, he said. Huzhiavichus said the birds were sold to a colleague of a British collector.
Wild animal traffickers have learned to operate in tandem with a legitimate trade in protected species that has about one million transactions a year.
Legitimate industry is governed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Although many animals are protected, CITES lists a number of exceptions under which nearly 38,000 otherwise protected species can be traded for profit, including animals born in captivity. This can be exploited by traffickers, experts say.
Documents issued by CITES work like a passport: every animal that crosses an international border must have a unique permit, which is presented to officials in order to pass. But it is rare for a border officer to be able to tell the difference between a real permit and a fraudulent one, or between one bird and another.
This means that once a trafficker has obtained a permit, “you can use one and the same one over and over again,” Huzhiavichus said. In some cases, he claimed to have used the same permit to smuggle 20 different poached birds.
A permit found by the Austrian police in his possession for a palm cockatoo was issued by the German Federal Nature Conservation Agency (BfN) to a wildlife park in West Germany, which claimed to have used the permit to import a palm cockatoo for another breeder. It is not clear how the original document or a copy of it ended up in the hands of the traffickers.
Huzhiavichus said the smugglers also used other techniques to circumvent CITES rules. Captive-bred birds, which can be legally traded, are provided with a tiny metal ring around a leg engraved with a unique serial number when young. Because these rings are too small to place on adult birds, this system has long been considered a foolproof way to make sure wild birds cannot be swapped.
But Huzhiavichus said his group found a way around this problem, using a special tool to put a larger ring on an adult bird, then squeeze it tighter, so it looked authentic.
After his first successful trip to the UK, Huzhiavichus said his boss began to trust him as a courier and that the assignments have arrived.
One of the exchanges, he said, 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.
The ACTP lawyers said it acted in full compliance with the law and had no information on the wildlife trafficking rings. The lawyers said the ACTP discussed buying birds with a partner of Huzhiavichus, but that their client did not know at the time that there were or could be indications of questionable or even illegal activity in relation to him. In particular, they said, the person identified himself with identification documents and presented all the required documents, and in any case the sale did not take place.
Huzhiavichus said he took palm cockatoos to an architect in Bratislava and sold long-tailed parakeets to a woman in the Netherlands. Once, he opened a shop in a large bird market in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where he sold less clearly trafficked birds and said he made € 150,000 in one day.
“Compared to arms smuggling, drugs or even human trafficking,” Huzhiavichus said, “[bird smuggling] it’s the best deal because there is no liability for it anywhere. That is, even in Europe there is no responsibility for this “.
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