There is no better crime than trafficking rare animals, according to Stanislavas Huzhiavichus.
“Smugglers of narcotics and weapons, they don’t know about the better business,” said the 30-year-old Ukrainian, a convicted smuggler of rare birds who is for the first time blowing the whistle on the methods of a global multimillion- dollar illegal trade. “Of course, it’s the business with animals.”
Huzhiavichus, a trained veterinarian, worked for a rare bird trafficking ring for almost a year. His job was keeping animals alive despite often squalid conditions. He later operated as a courier across Europe.
Taking advantage of Cites, a permit system created to govern the trade in rare species, the group trafficked some of the world’s most-threatened birds from their countries of origin to high-profile supposed conservationists in Europe.
Huzhiavichus said rare birds such as the palm cockatoo were sold for more than 30 times their purchase value, earning the group about €50,000 (£42,000) each trip, with very few expenses.
Arrested by Austrian authorities during a courier trip to Vienna in April 2018, Huzhiavichus spent four months in an Austrian jail before returning to Ukraine, where reporters for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) tracked him down last October and he agreed to share his story.
During his time in prison, gang members and drug traffickers at first referred to him as the “bird catcher.” When he explained how profitable the trafficking of rare birds could be, their bemusement of him turned to admiration, with some inmates proposing they go into business together.
The European Union and the UK support anti-wildlife trafficking efforts abroad, but experts say it is breathtakingly easy to smuggle wild animals within the bloc.
Huzhiavichus said that, within half a year, he was able to smuggle more than 1,000 rare birds across Europe with ease. He said the favored method used by his boss was bribing train conductors in Kyiv to lock the birds in compartments and smuggle them into the EU.
Huzhiavichus said he then picked them up at major train stations in cities such as Budapest, from where he could drive anywhere within the Schengen zone without fearing inspections.
A second route involved payoffs to corrupt border officials at a 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 a rental car with an EU license plate and headed to northern France for the Channel tunnel to the UK.
The few times Huzhiavichus was stopped, he presented a handful of permits. None of them applied to the birds he was transporting, but they satisfied the border officials, he said. Huzhiavichus said the birds ended up being sold to an associate of a British collector.
Wildlife traffickers have learned to operate in tandem with a legitimate trade in protected species that counts roughly a million transactions a year.
The 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 almost 38,000 otherwise protected species can be traded for profit, including animals born in captivity. This can be exploited by traffickers, experts say.
The paperwork issued by Cites acts like a passport: each animal crossing an international border needs to have a unique permit, which is presented to officials in order to be allowed to pass. But it is rare for a border official to be able to spot the difference between a real and a fraudulent permit – or between one bird and another.
This means that once a trafficker has obtained a permit, “you can use one and the same over and over again”, Huzhiavichus said. In some cases, he said he used the same permit to smuggle 20 different poached birds.
One permit found by Austrian police in his possession, for a palm cockatoo, had been issued by Germany’s federal agency for nature conservation (BfN) to a wildlife park in western Germany, which said it had 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 smugglers.
Huzhiavichus said the smugglers also used other techniques to skirt Cites rules. Captive-bred birds, which can be legally traded, are fitted as juveniles with a tiny metal ring around one leg engraved with a unique serial number. Since these rings are too small to be placed on adult birds, this system has long been considered a foolproof way to make sure wild birds cannot be traded.
But Huzhiavichus said his group found a way around this, using a special tool to put a larger ring on a grown bird, then squeeze it tighter, so it looked genuine.
After his first successful trip to the UK, Huzhiavichus said his boss began to trust him as a courier, and the assignments came rolling 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 that it had no information about wildlife trafficking rings. The lawyers said ACTP did discuss the purchase of birds with an associate of Huzhiavichus but that at the time their client had no knowledge that there were or could be indications of questionable or even illegal activities in connection with him. In particular, they said, the person identified himself by means of identification papers and presented all the required papers, and in any event 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 set up shop at a large bird market in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where he sold less obviously trafficked birds and said he took in €150,000 in one day.
“Compared to the smuggling of weapons, drugs or even human trafficking,” Huzhiavichus said, “[bird smuggling] is the best business because there is no responsibility for it anywhere. That is, even in Europe there is no responsibility for it as such.”
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