Multi-agency effort to catch wildlife criminals

Middle Island tusked weta
This Middle Island tusked weta (Motuweta
isolata) is our most endangered weta
species. Native invertebrates like this
are among the species the Wildlife
Enforcement Group works to protect from
smugglers. Photo: Brett Robertson,
Department of Conservation.

Wildlife smuggling is a global, multi-billion dollar business, estimated at US$6 – 8 billion annually and second only to the global drug trade. As with the drug trade, New Zealand is not immune, and the illegal trade in New Zealand fauna and flora is growing. A multi-agency group leads the effort to stop this criminal activity.

The Wildlife Enforcement Group (WEG) is an equal partnership between three New Zealand government departments under a Memorandum of Agreement. The aim of the WEG is "to stop organised illegal trade in wildlife involving import, export, and related domestic activity. This includes live fauna and flora and their derivatives". The group embraces the investigation methods common to enforcement groups around the world. Liaison, coordination, resource and intelligence sharing are at the forefront of their day-to-day operations.

The three departments, New Zealand Customs Service (NZCS), MAF and the Department of Conservation (DOC) each have a defined role to play in the overall control of import, export or internal wildlife management, but collectively the WEG works for all three departments. Agreed protocols decide which department is ultimately responsible for ensuring a result through prosecution or compliance.

Departmental resources available

All three departments have staff available to the WEG for operational situations. These range from vets to border inspection or search teams, from experienced investigators to technical support staff.

International liaison is one of the group’s most powerful tools in the fight against wildlife crime, and the WEG has a close working relationship with Interpol. The sharing of intelligence and operational co-operation between kindred agencies is of vital importance for the preservation of wildlife species.

This smuggler unsuccessfully tried to
conceal eggs around her body when entering
the country.

The WEG operates within a number of statutes and there are few investigations carried out by the group involving only one piece of legislation. The Biosecurity Act, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Customs and Excise Act and the Wildlife Act are the ‘bread and butter’ statutes, and the Crimes Act is involved in most inquiries where offences are detected. The Crimes Act is particularly useful in considering offences of conspiracy, attempts, and parties to offences and fraud.

Role for Crimes Act in prosecutions

There is growing world-wide identification of specific crimes and active criminals associated with wildlife smuggling. New Zealand is no exception to this, and because New Zealand wildlife legislation lacks specific statutes dealing with conspiracy, parties to offences and fraudulent activity, the Crimes Act is used to meet the shortfall. Smugglers generally have a fraud component to their operation in their attempts to appear legitimate.

The WEG is overseen by a Liaison Committee comprising two senior administrators from each of the three departments. The committee does not monitor day-to-day activity, but it is, along with departmental senior executives and government ministers, informed whenever upcoming operations may affect one of the departments.

The Liaison Committee also monitors and certifies the annual budget, equally shared by the departments, and the annual work programme which is set by the Team Leader WEG. The annual work programme incorporates the aim and goals of the WEG and accommodates any international travel required for liaison and representation of the group in joint criminal wildlife investigations.

The WEG operational mandate is similar to investigation units in many parts of the world, and is staffed by experienced investigators. Each investigator holds a warrant of appointment from all three parent organisations, meaning all WEG personnel are appointed as Wildlife Rangers, Conservation Officers, Endangered Species Officers, Biosecurity Inspectors and Customs Officers.

Information comes to WEG either through its own enquiries and/or informants, or from one of the three parent departments, New Zealand Police or overseas wildlife law enforcement agencies. The intelligence is gathered and expanded to identify a modus operandi and to pinpoint future events or wildlife crime. At an early stage, other investigators in any one of the three departments may be briefed or called upon to assist.

Emerald tree monitor
This emerald tree monitor (Varanus prasinus)
a native of Papua New Guinea, was intercepted
as a result of a WEG investigation.

The collection, dissemination and early analysis of information is done by the WEG itself. When a pattern of activity, or group of known suspects, becomes apparent, the charting and development of the intelligence is carried out by a trained NZCS Intelligence Analyst. When it reaches a point where a breach of New Zealand legislation has occurred, or where there is an offence about to be committed, the department with statutory jurisdiction for that offending takes up responsibility for the prosecution.

For example, should a planned importation of wildlife be identified, MAF and NZCS would take a lead role in the interception. MAF would control and quarantine the wildlife and, if the species was CITES listed, both MAF and DOC would be responsible for the prosecution of the offender. Wildlife could be anything from unprocessed elephant hide to bird eggs or reptiles, to invertebrates, or to orchids or other plants.

In the case of the illegal export of New Zealand native or exotic wildlife, including flora (whether or not CITES listed), DOC would take responsibility for the prosecution from the time the offending was identified or intercepted.

In both situations, full use is made of NZCS and MAF Quarantine Service positions at the border and of their role in monitoring imports and exports and passenger movements.

  • To report any suspicious activity to the Wildlife Enforcement Group, call 09 359 6607 or email

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Page last updated: 30 April 2008