Animal smuggling is a surprisingly big problem. A report in the Canberra Times quotes an Australian customs officer as saying animal smuggling is a $20 billion industry and the third largest criminal activity in the world (after drugs and weapons).
Animal smuggling can range from someone trying to sneak an exotic pet into the country, or large- scale smuggling by certain individuals (like the guy who tried to smuggle 300 poisonous frogs onto a plane). It can also consist of massive organized crime ventures.
There are many concerns associated with animal smuggling:
- Animal welfare: High death rates are not uncommon among animals during illicit transportation. Smuggled animals are often wild-caught, and even if they survive the stress of transportation, they may die soon after arrival. Particularly when you hear about animals being smuggled sewn up in giant teddy bears, or stuffed into pockets and pouches, it's a wonder as many of them survive as they do. The customs office in the Canberra Times article sums it up nicely "'People who smuggle animals don't care about the animals ... They actually see dead animals as an overhead.'"
- Introduction of foreign diseases: Smuggled animals have been blamed for introduction of serious diseases like avian influenza into areas where these diseases don't normally exist. This can be a huge problem, as it creates the potential for large outbreaks amongst indigenous animals or people whose immune systems are completely naive to the diseases.
- Transmission of disease to new owners: Smuggled animals certainly have not undergone good health examinations and quarantines, and can carry a host of potentially harmful microorganisms. This can put buyers and their families at risk.
Despite being a huge industry, there are things that everyone can and should do to reduce animal smuggling:
- Don't buy animals that you know were or may have been illegally imported. Doing so contributes to the death of countless other animals for every animal that survives.
- Don't buy wild-caught animals like birds and reptiles. Wild caught doesn't mean smuggled, but it may be hard to tell the two apart. Some of the disease risks, particularly to individual buyers, are the same with legally and illegally imported wild-caught animals. These days there are good, reputable and ethical breeders of many animal species around that can supply animals. If the species is so rare that there aren't any good breeders around, then don't buy it. It might be rare because the animals don't survive well in captivity, or are hard to find in the wild. You don't want to contribute to either of those situations. In some instances, you can find both wild-caught and captive-bred animals for sale. While the captive-bred version will almost certainly be more expensive, the extra cost is not so great when you consider the overall lifetime costs of the animal. And how much money do you really save if you end up with a sick or dead animal?
- If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That animal that you're getting for such a "great deal" might have been smuggled or be otherwise unhealthy.
- If, for some reason, you are determined to get a wild-caught animal, make sure that it comes from a reputable source who imported the animal legally. Ask how it was caught, stored and transported. A good supplier should be able to tell you everything that happened from the time of capture to its arrival, or at least be able to find that out. If they don't know or don't care, walk away.