When somebody of the American Mafia reckons a racket is big, it is big. And, with prophetic irony, Vincent ‘Big Vinnie’ Teresa, a New York Mafia boss turned FBI informer, once took it upon himself to warn that bird smuggling from Australia was getting bigger and bigger in the ambit of international organised crime.
Teresa well knew, for when authorities smashed Australia’s largest bird smuggling operation, Teresa himself, operator of an American bird import agency, was nominated as one of the principals of the racket.
In a telephone interview with the author in 1979, Teresa, who had made a controversial visit to Australia two years previously, said that bird smuggling from Australia had become interlinked with drug trafficking involving US Mafia interests. According to him, it was a racket ‘that’s getting bigger and bigger’. Just one week after the interview was published in The Bulletin magazine in August 1979, authorities seized a truck load of galahs and sulphur-crested cockatoos — allegedly being smuggled for Teresa himself — worth on the American market well over two million dollars. It was seven times the previous biggest haul on record.
Bird smuggling is certainly a big, cruel business, involving millions of dollars of illicit profits and pitiful treatment of captured wildlife.
In money terms, smuggling of birds and other wildlife can be as lucrative as drug trafficking. Both smuggling operations tend to go hand in hand . . . with the same Asian trafficking routes used to smuggle out birds and other wildlife and bring back illegal drugs.
Each year, countless thousands of birds, reptiles and other protected species, including the koala and kangaroo, are smuggled out of Australia through Asia for sale to wealthy buyers in the United States and Europe.
In 1976, a Federal parliamentary standing committee established to investigate trafficking in protected fauna described the racket as a ‘highly capitalised and organised activity involving land, sea and air operations and a network of contacts throughout Australia and overseas’.
It has been calculated that the annual turnover would be around $40 million.
The principal destinations are Asia and the United States where a pair of rare parrots can fetch the mind-boggling price of $50000. Even taipan snakes and green tree pythons can sell for $1000 each.
Gold-shouldered parrots and sulphur-crested cockatoos have been bringing up to $10000 for a matched pair in the United States.
Even the lowly galah, destroyed as a pest on most outback properties, sells for up to $1700.
Yet in Australia they can be bought, legally, for a mere fraction of the cost.
In the Teresa episode, the birds seized were to have been sold in the United States for more than 600 times their Australian value. An outlay of not much over $3000 was to yield more than $2 million!
A well-known restaurant and nightclub owner of Sydney’s Kings Cross, Alfred Ferdinham Franz Schmid, pleaded guilty to various Federal and State charges following the seizure of a van load of birds in north Queensland allegedly destined for Teresa.
Austrian-born Schmid, who migrated to Australia in 1955 and who had been refused Australian citizenship twelve years later on criminal and security grounds, operated Freddie’s Weiner Wald and Old Vienna Inn Restaurants in the heart of Kings Cross.
An alert export clerk at Sydney’s Mascot airport thwarted one attempt by Schmid to smuggle out crates of birds under the guise of computer parts. In June 1979 Schmid booked an airline container in the name of Computrex Datronmics (Australia) Incorporated for dispatch with Qantas to Manila in the Philippines, with an open invoice for transhipment from there to Portland Sales Corporation of Portland, Oregon, USA.
When Schmid and another person loaded twelve crates into the airline container, he pressed five $20 notes into the hand of export clerk David John Stewert, telling him not to worry about any noises emanating from the container as the crates contained cockatoos. Stewert afterwards notified Mascot police, who called in customs officers, who broke open the crates to find seventy-seven sulphur-crested cockatoos and ten galahs.
Although the cockatoos had been bought from a licensed dealer for nine dollars each, and the galahs for probably less than half of that, they would have been worth a total of nearly half a million dollars in the United States.
The shipment was confiscated — without Schmid knowing what had happened to it.
Nearly two months later, a large furniture type van parked on a disused track beside the Cairns highway in north Queensland, attracted the attention of a local resident, James Dennis Kinnear. When Kinnear approached the van, he heard birds squawking. Schmid and another man told Kinnear they were Customs officers and flashed badges (subsequently believed to have been Lions Club badges). Next day, Kinnear saw the van again, parked 100 metres away, and notified police at Kuranda, a tiny township twenty-five kilometres from Cairns.
That night, 14 August 1979, sergeant Jock MacDonald and constable Philip Crogan tracked down the van and Schmid at the Honey House Motel in Kuranda. Confronted about the birds, Schmid exclaimed: ‘Oh, my God’, and admitted he was not licensed or authorised to have them in his possession.
Earlier that same morning, Robert Cox, manager of the Jolly Roger Motel in nearby Cairns, had called Commonwealth police after monitoring an international telephone call booked to Vinnie Teresa’s unlisted number in the United States.
The call was booked to Seattle 8384318, used by Teresa for a bird import business trading under the name Seattle Bird Importers Incorporated, and registered under a Teresa cover name, Charles Antony Cantino. Teresa had adopted this name as part of a new identity upon entering the US Government’s ‘Witness Protection’ programme after agreeing to testify against former New York Mafia associates.
According to Cox’s version of the monitored call, the Cairns caller complained about waiting two days and having to get out because of the risk:
Seattle: I realise the risk you are taking but I couldn’t get a plane. We were lucky to get through previously on commercial. I was up all night ringing to get a plane . . . the other bloke pulled out because of the risk. I have now got to contact this other plane in two-and-a-half hours.
Cairns: It is no good unless the plane is here by 10 pm tonight. The risk is too high . . .
Seattle: I realise the risk you are taking but do you realise the (payment) of $17000 that you could miss out . . . can’t you wait another couple of days . . . I know there is a risk but the plane will be leaving today . . .
Cairns: It’s no good . . . I have got to get out.
Since Queensland police seized the shipment that night, it is not known what happened to any plane. But Teresa was alleged to have arranged for a DC3 aircraft to pick up the birds and fly them to Indonesia to fulfil US quarantine regulations, and then fly them on to America where he was to use Mafia colleagues to sell them throughout the United States.
In December 1978, the US Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service had seized 324 birds in Teresa’s possession imported from Indonesia with faulty quarantine papers. It was suspected that they had been smuggled originally from Australia.
Teresa visited Australia in February 1977, to appear before an unofficial inquiry into casinos. He departed hurriedly after being ordered out of the country by the Federal Government for having entered under a false name. For the short time he was in Sydney, he devoted most of his time to visiting bird aviaries.
Once a big-time member of the New York mob, Teresa gave testimony before the McClellan Senate Inquiry into organised crime in the United States and wrote a book, My Life in the Mafia. Turning FBI informant, he was responsible for the conviction of more than fifty criminals involved in organised crime.
Within a year of being named in Australian bird smuggling operations, he was gaoled over an insurance fraud.
Five years later, Teresa was named again as the American connection for Australian bird smuggling and in December 1984 was indicted in Philadelphia on charges of conspiracy to smuggle rare birds into the United States.
Some smuggling syndicates maintain full-time hunting crews roaming the outback. Their methods can be quite brutal.
Birds are trapped in mist nets — fine mesh strung between trees that entangle birds that fly into them. Or nylon loops are used to catch birds by the legs, often leaving them dangling from tree branches until the hunters return. Sticky substances are spread over feeding grounds, leaving birds literally stuck to the ground. Many perish from shock or starvation before the hunters return to free them.
To get birds out of the country, they are packed in crates and boxes and flown out using any of the 900 unsupervised airstrips of northern Australia. Others are taken out by couriers through international airports, drugged and stuffed in camera cases, cigarette cartons and false bottomed suitcases.
One planeload of smuggled birds can be exchanged in Bangkok for a consignment of heroin worth millions of dollars in street value back in Australia.
In one smuggling operation smashed by the Australian Customs Bureau, a syndicate had netted $310000—$250000 from birds taken out of the country and $60000 from a backload of exotic Asian parrots.
The backloading of overseas species to Australia also presents a national disease hazard.
In 1977, authorities had to act when a couple at Wyong on the central coast of NSW bought imported parrots smuggled in from Indonesia. The parrots were suspected of having been in contact with Newcastle Disease, a virulent virus that can decimate poultry flocks. Thousands of dollars of other birds likely to have been affected by the smuggled birds had to be destroyed.
When poultry become infected with Newcastle Disease (named after the British city of that name after an outbreak in 1926) they die of respiratory and nervous disorders. A form of the disease has broken out in Australia twice, both times in Victoria. In 1930, two poultry farmers lost nearly 5000 birds between them. In the second outbreak in 1932, more than 20000 birds died.
Wildlife smugglers do not restrict themselves to birds or drugs.
United States customs authorities cracked an Australian-based smuggling ring dealing in reptiles. Called the ‘Swiss Connection’, it involved a consignment of 150 snakes, lizards and crocodiles despatched from Queensland and routed through Switzerland to a prominent wildlife dealer in Philadelphia.
Australian customs men have been arresting dozens of smugglers each year. One man was fined in Darwin for attempting to smuggle five live pythons — four of which were found in cloth pouches strapped to his legs and the fifth snake hidden in his underpants.
When a horse trainer from Perth appeared in a court in Sydney for attempting to export ten native birds worth $23000 he was fined only $500. Pleading guilty, the man said he was approached at a racecourse, while drunk, by a man who asked him to take a case to Singapore.
He claimed he did not know what was in the case. ‘I don’t even like birds’, he said, ‘I am frightened of them’.
In Queensland, the Government has set up a special 20-man Fauna Protection Squad. Seconded from the police force, squad members operate in two-man teams to patrol isolated airstrips and wildlife hunting grounds. Four-fifths, or 547 of the 683 different species of native birds, can be found in Queensland.
The Premier of Queensland, Bjelke Petersen, stepped in himself to order formation of the squad, and assigned his own personal bodyguard, Detective-Sergeant Laurie Witham, to spearhead the squad. As Witham put it, ‘We can’t stand by and see the heritage of future generations wiped out by mercenary greed’.
Testifying to the scale of money available to bird smugglers, police in Queensland in 1980 were hunting a smuggling ring suspected of having buried $1 million in cash on an island after a boat they had been using got into difficulties. Fearing detection, gang members had reportedly taken the money ashore and hidden it, while releasing their ill-gotten cargo of native birds. After another raid on an outback trapping camp, near the Northern Territory border, police smashed a ring believed to have included a doctor and a priest.
In Victoria, the Government has instituted a stricter system of licensing for the keeping of fauna, with fines of up to $5000 for possession of endangered species.
Authorities in South Australia have proposed an entirely different approach — that export restrictions be eased to allow the export of galahs, cockatoos and other fauna no longer considered endangered species. On most outback properties, they are shot as pests, yet cannot be exported as pets. The South Australian authorities argue that a relaxation of the export ban would break the black market and provide a profitable means of reducing pest numbers.
Rather than ease restrictions, the Commonwealth has opted for tougher penalties, although they remain lighter than for drug trafficking.
With profits from wildlife smuggling almost as lucrative as the drug trade, more smugglers are likely to confine themselves to wildlife, particularly in view of stepped-up Federal and State efforts to combat drug trafficking.
In effect, a continuation of lighter penalties for wildlife smuggling amounts to a virtual invitation to entrenched smugglers to make it a growth industry.
from Connections 1 by Bob Bottom