By Ivan RemiaS
The Prague Post
March 8, 2000
- Smuggling exotic animals is big business in the Czech Republic
Honzik Drabek cradles his new turtle. He's not likely to care that
it's from Uzbekistan. He's even less likely to guess that for every
turtle that survives the trip, several do not. For 10-year-old Honzik,
the idea that for every "legal" turtle, there are hundreds
of smuggled ones, might be a bit too hard to grasp. Honzik, his
eyes gleaming, is concerned only with naming his new pet. "I'll
call him Pepa," he tells his father, who pays 450 Kc (dollar
13) to a vendor. "Pepa" is among dozens of species on
sale at a licensed animal market in a local sports hall in Prague's
Brumlovka suburb. While most of the animals on sale come from legal
farms, with documentation regarding their background, some are imports
of more dubious origin - and for every legally imported and sold
animal, dimmer deals are often struck. Trading in wild animals is
a lucrative and largely unregulated business in the Czech Republic.
In the Brumlovka display are lizards, snakes, tortoises and shrieking
birds. They give the hall a tropic-zone atmosphere.
Animal breeding boomed under communism, and many former breeders
have become importers since 1989. Some of the former breeders, seeking
fast cash, have turned to the extensive black market in exotic animals.
Case in point: Ales Havelka, a Czech national, was sentenced in
January to a month in prison by a Melbourne court after trying to
smuggle 31 endangered reptiles out of Australia.
The estimated value of each of the reptiles was dollar 2,000 (72,000
Kc). The sale value could be up to 10 times that, officials say.
Big business Best estimates suggest that trading in exotic, mostly
endangered, species is a dollar 5 billion global industry, which
puts it in the same category as drugs and weapons among black market
businesses. Such creatures as black stork, parrots, crocodiles,
Kimodo dragons, iguanas, eagles, falcons, boas, even Indian elephants
and the rhinoceros, are included in the extensive clandestine traffic.
In 1975, dozens of governments signed the Convention on International
Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
By last year, 145 nations had signed on. "The agreement lists
around 5,000 animals and 25,000 plants that are broken down into
three categories with regard to how at risk they are," says
Ladislav Miko, deputy director of the state-run Czech Environmental
Inspection Office (CIZP) in Prague. Ostensibly, special permissions
are required for trading in the listed species. But the loopholes
are as many and varied as the species traded. While Prague ratified
the so-called Washington agreement in 1993 - a pact that further
restricted trading in wild animals and plants - government officials
said enforcement wouldn't begin for four years. Moreover, violators
are so far liable only for fines. Miko's office is now pushing for
stricter guidelines and tougher punishment. One out of every four
smuggled creatures usually dies in transit. "We're trying to
convince law enforcement officials to pass legislation that sends
smugglers to jail," CIZP inspector Petra Rihova says. Fines
no deterrent According to Rihova, rich smugglers are top-heavy with
legal counsel to help them dodge fines.
Under the current law, convicted smugglers face a high-end fine
of 200,000 Kc. Repeat offenders may be required to pay as much as
2 million Kc. "The fines rarely exceed 50,000 Kc, a sum that
smugglers can easily pay," she says, hinting at potential corruption
among regional inspectors. Moreover, the risk of modest fines hardly
deters veteran traffickers eager to cash in on the growing European
demand for exotica. "In Africa," Rihova says, "you
can get a gray parrot for a mere dollar 6, but here you sell it
for dollar 230." When smuggled to Germany, the same bird can
fetch dollar 1,050. "Even if half of the animals die on the
way here, it doesn't matter to the smugglers if they transport hundreds,"
Rihova adds. Last year, 111 cases of animal smuggling were documented,
up from a mere nine in 1997. Despite greater vigilance, CIZP inspectors
believe that they catch only a third of the illegal hauls. In general,
animal traders dismiss the charges. Zbynek Laube, an animal trader
from the central Bohemian town of Kosice, says both inspectors and
environmental activists exaggerate. "Today, most of the animals
come from farms," Laube says. "The state officials in
these (foreign) countries wouldn't even let you export the animals
if you can't prove you bought them from farmers." For seven
years, Laube's firm, Farma Aves, has been importing animals mostly
from Asia, Africa and South America. The demand for certain species
often varies from season to season. "It's just a matter of
fashion," Laube says. "One year, parrots from South America
are 'in' and you can't bring in enough of them; the next year, it's
turtles or fish."
Ivan Remias's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.