Bird smuggler turned gamekeeper: The man who shines a spotlight on the illegal wildlife trade | Illegal trade in wildlife

According to Stanislavas Huzhiavicius, there is no better crime than the trafficking of rare animals.

“Drugs and arms smugglers, they know nothing of the best business,” said the 30-year-old Ukrainian, a convicted smuggler of rare birds who blows the whistle for the first time on the methods of global millions. Illicit trade in dollars. “Of course, it’s a trade with animals.”

Huzhiavichus, a trained veterinarian, worked for a rare bird smuggling gang for about a year. His job was to keep the animals alive despite the often dire conditions. He later worked as a cross courier Europe.

Leveraging the Cites, a permit system created to control the trade in rare species, the group has smuggled some of the world’s most threatened birds from their home countries to prestigious conservationists in Europe.

Huzhiavichus said rare birds such as the palm parrot sold for more than 30 times their purchase value, and the group earned around 50,000 euros (£42,000) per flight, with very little expenses.

Arrested by Austrian authorities during a courier flight to Vienna in April 2018, he spent four months in an Austrian prison before returning to Ukrainewhere OCCRP reporters tracked him down last October and agreed to share his story.

Stanislavas Huzhiavichus with bird food Dennis Hrubi
Huzhiavichus examines some bird food. Photography: Dennis Hrubi

During his time in prison, gang members and drug dealers initially mocked him as a “bird hunter”. When he explained how profitable the trade in rare birds can be, their stupor turned to admiration, as some of the inmates suggested they go into business together.

The European Union and the United Kingdom support efforts to combat wildlife trafficking abroad, but experts say it is surprisingly easy to smuggle wildlife within the bloc.

Within half a year, Huzhiavichus said, he was able to smuggle more than 1,000 rare birds across Europe with ease. He said his boss’s preferred method was to bribe train drivers in Kyiv to trap birds in booths and smuggle them into the European Union.

Huzhiavichus said he then picked them up at major train stations in cities like Budapest, where he could drive anywhere within the Schengen area without fear of inspections.

The second route involved bribes to corrupt border officials at a crossing between Ukraine and Slovakia.

On his first mission, in September 2017, he picked up four birds of paradise in Kosice, Slovakia, loaded them into a rental car with an EU license plate and drove to northern France for the Channel Tunnel to the UK.

Stanislavas Huzhiavichus with a bird
Huzhiavichus: “Drug and arms smugglers, they don’t know the best business.” Photography: Dennis Hrubi

The few times Huzhiavichus was stopped, he made a handful of passes. He said none of them applied to the birds he was ferrying, but that they satisfied border officials. Huzhiavichus said the birds were sold to a British assistant collector.

Wildlife traders have learned to operate alongside a legitimate trade in protected species which is estimated to be around one million transactions annually.

The legitimate industry is governed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While many of the animals are protected, Cites lists a number of exceptions under which nearly 38,000 protected species can be traded for profit, including captive-bred animals. Experts say smugglers can take advantage of this.

Papers issued by Cites work like a passport: Each animal crossing an international border needs a unique permit, which is presented to officials in order to be allowed to pass. But it’s rare for a border official to be able to spot the difference between a real and a fraudulent declaration – or between one bird and another.

This means that once a merchant has a permit, “you can use the same permit over and over again,” Hozhiavicus said. In some cases, he said, he used the same permit to smuggle 20 different poached birds.

One of the permits found in his possession by Austrian police, for a palm parrot, was issued by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) to a wildlife park in western Germany, which said it used the permit to import another palm cockatoo. jam. It is not clear how the original document or a copy of it ended up in the hands of the smugglers.

Hozhiavichus said smugglers also used other techniques to get around the CITES rules. Captive-bred birds, which can be traded legally, are fitted as juveniles with a small metal ring around one leg engraved with a unique serial number. 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 a large bird, then compress it firmly, so that it looked real.

Cockatiels in the house of Stanislavas Hogiavicus.
Cockatiels in the house of Stanislavas Hogiavicus. Photography: Dennis Hrubi

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After his first successful trip to the United Kingdom, Huzhiavichus said that his boss had begun to trust him as a courier, and the tasks were in progress.

He claimed that one of the exchanges was with an association keep Threatened Parrots (ACTP) in Germany, which promotes itself as a protector of endangered parrots and is registered as a zoo.

ACTP’s lawyers said she acted in full compliance with the law and that she had no information about wildlife smuggling gangs. The lawyers said ACTP had discussed the purchase of the birds with one of Huzhiavichus’ partners but at the time their client was not aware that there were or could be indications of questionable or even illegal activities related to it. In particular, they said, the person identified himself with his identification papers and submitted all the required papers, and in all cases the sale was not made.

Huzhiavichus said he took palm parrots to an architect in Bratislava and sold the long-tailed parrots to a woman in Holland. Once, he set up shop in a large bird market in Reggio Emilia, Italy, where he sold smuggled birds less conspicuously and said he made €150,000 in one day.

“Compared to arms or drug smuggling or even human trafficking,” Hozhavichos said.[bird smuggling] It is the best job because there is no responsibility for it anywhere. This means that even in Europe there is no responsibility for it as such.”

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