Australia gave endangered birds to secretive German ‘zoo’, ignoring warnings

Exclusive: government issued export permits for more than 200 rare and endangered parrots, despite concerns they were being offered for sale rather than exhibited

The Australian government has permitted the export of hundreds of rare and endangered parrots to a German organisation headed by a convicted kidnapper, fraudster and extortionist, despite concerns the birds could be sold at a huge profit.

An investigation by Guardian Australia has revealed that the Berlin-based Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots received permission to export 232 birds between 2015 and November 2018 – more than 80% of all the live native birds legally exported from Australia in the same period.

The exports include threatened species such as Carnaby’s and Baudin’s black cockatoos, worth tens of thousands of dollars each.

The head of the ACTP, Martin Guth, has multiple criminal convictions, including a five-year jail sentence for hostage-taking, extortion and attempted fraud in 1996. In 2009 Guth was sentenced to one year and eight months in prison for seven cases of fraud. In one incident Guth kidnapped two men and threatened to cut their fingers off unless they paid a large sum of money.

A six-month Guardian investigation has found:

  • Export permits for Australian birds specified they were for exhibition purposes only, but ACTP has no facility that is freely open to the public.

  • Export permits prohibited the sale of the birds or their offspring, but private messages on social media reveal native Australian birds apparently from ACTP have been offered for sale for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The German federal agency for nature conservation has said it was aware of those offers.

  • The Australian government was repeatedly warned of concerns about ACTP by international wildlife authorities, private breeders and the government MP Warren Entsch.

  • International conservation bodies and scientists have raised questions about the organisation’s activities in other countries, including Dominica, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Brazil.

  • ACTP does not publish its financial records and is not registered with any major international zoological association.

Concerns about ACTP in Australia were raised with the former environment minister and now treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, and the office of the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, as well as the environment department. But the government has continued to allow the exports. The latest shipment of 64 birds to ACTP was approved on 12 November.

In December 2017 the government brokered a deal with ACTP that involved the organisation giving $200,000 to the Western Australian government for projects to protect the endangered western ground parrot.

In response to questions from Guardian Australia, the office of the threatened species commissioner, Sally Box, said no such deal would have been reached had it known of Guth’s record.

“The commissioner, nor any other officer in the Department of the Environment and Energy, would not seek to broker a conservation partnership with a known criminal,” a spokesperson said.

Guth’s criminal convictions do not relate to his involvement with ACTP. But the investigation raises serious questions about the oversight of exports of native species from Australia, and the due diligence conducted by international wildlife authorities on a group that has acquired one of the largest collections of rare and endangered parrots in the world.

Birds offered for sale

The Australian parrots, which were bought openly and legally by ACTP from local breeders and birdkeepers, were exported after the environment department agreed to recognise the organisation as a zoo in 2015.

Documents show ACTP obtained a licence to operate as a zoo in Germany in 2014, only months before its application to Australian authorities.

The organisation told the Australian government it ran numerous centres in Germany. None are freely open to the public. Its main premises at Tasdorf, a village 30km outside Berlin, displays no public information other than a mobile phone number. Its location is not advertised and the buildings display no opening hours nor any other indication that the public is welcome to visit.

ACTP buildings
Buildings associated with the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) in Tasdorf, Germany. Photograph: The Guardian

In paperwork submitted to the environment department in 2017, the organisation said it had facilities in five other countries, including one in the Netherlands. It is operated by a Dutch bird collector who was convicted in 2015 of involvement as a buyer in a trading ring that was illegally selling protected exotic birds.

The import and export of rare and endangered birds is governed by the convention on international trade in endangered species (Cites), to which both Australia and Germany are signatories. In addition to Cites restrictions, under Australian law no native species can be exported for commercial purposes.

Conditions on the permits granted by Australia to ACTP from 2015 prevent it legally selling the birds or their offspring to anyone, other than for exhibition purposes.

Among the birds approved were 16 glossy black cockatoos (seven in 2015, nine in 2016) and 26 purple-crowned lorikeets in 2017.

Guardian Australia has seen private social media messages from a German breeder offering for sale glossy black cockatoos at €95,000 (A$150,000) a pair, with paperwork guaranteeing they had been imported legally. The messages carry the postcode of Schöneiche in Brandenburg, the same location as one of the ACTP facilities.

Glossy black cockatoos are found only in Australia. None had ever been legally exported under Cites regimes before those sent to ACTP. Since then, the only recorded legal export was of seven individuals which went to Cyprus in 2017.

Guardian Australia has also seen private messages on a social media network offering for sale purple-crowned lorikeets claimed to be the offspring of birds sent to ACTP.

Separately, in October 2017 an announcement was placed in the Danish aviculture magazine Dansk Fuglehold stating that a co-director of ACTP had registered to be recognised as the first person to successfully breed purple-crowned lorikeets in Denmark.

The 26 purple-crowned lorikeets exported to ACTP could not legally be transferred to Denmark under the terms of the Australian permit, unless the facility was registered as a zoo. The director’s name does not appear on lists of zoos registered in Denmark. Only four other purple-crowned lorikeets have ever been legally exported from Australia under Cities – four individuals, also on a zoo permit, to Spain in 2017.

Requests to the director for comment were redirected to Guth and ACTP’s press office. Neither responded to questions.

Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) has confirmed to Guardian Australia it was aware that glossy black cockatoos imported from Australia by ACTP had been offered for sale. It said it had looked into the offers and found the birds had been legally imported and bred, and there were no limits on trade.

But under the terms of ACTP’s Australian permits, the animals and their offspring could only be moved to recognised zoos.

The BfN said it was unaware of Guth’s criminal record, but only information directly linked to bird trading was taken into account when ruling on Cites import permits.

Federal Liberal National MP Warren Entsch.
Federal Liberal National MP Warren Entsch. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Guth did not respond to a detailed list of questions about ACTP. But in an earlier message he said the organisation was “extremely careful to follow all the rules and regulations set by both our German authorities and those of the other countries whom we deal with”.

He accused Guardian Australia of harassing ACTP associates and fabricating stories about the organisation.

Concerns disregarded

Multiple emails from the Australian environment department to ACTP, obtained under freedom of information laws, reveal concerns that exported birds, or their offspring, would be sold.

The emails show department officials repeatedly relied on statements written by Cites officials at the BfN, and by ACTP itself, to verify the nature of the organisation.

Departmental correspondence in the documents notes that the local aviculture industry expressed concerns about the volume of birds being sent to ACTP, and a briefing addressing these concerns was sent to Frydenberg, then the environment minister, in October 2017.

The federal MP Warren Entsch, himself a bird lover, also warned the department and Frydenberg personally, as well as the office of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, in numerous meetings.

“I raised concerns with the minister’s office, with his staff, that … birds seemed to be being freely sent to this German facility that was not a zoo,” Entsch said. “It seemed to be a private collection. That bothered me.

“I think there needs to be a full investigation as to the reasons why, in spite of warnings going back over 12 months – not only from me but from others within the industry – that concerns have been ignored.”

Frydenberg did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the environment department said that when assessing the trade of animals between countries, the department was required to examine the backgrounds only of the exporters applying for permits, not the importer.

“The Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) was the importer,” she said.

But ACTP also had to apply to the department to be recognised as a zoo, because it had not previously received animals from Australia.

The form asks if the facility is “privately owned” and, if so, whether any of its owners have any criminal convictions. ACTP, which is registered as an association in Germany, stated it was not privately owned and wrote “n/a” against the question on convictions.

The department’s spokeswoman said German Cites authorities had vouched for the quality of ACTP’s facilities.

She said that in response to allegations of illegal avian trade received by the Cites secretariat in Geneva, German officials had inspected ACTP’s facilities in October 2017.

“German officials did not detect any indicators of illegal avian trading or possession, and noted that ACTP operators had fulfilled their legal requirements to a high standard,” the environment department spokeswoman said.

She said no department employee had ever visited ACTP’s facilities.

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Lisa Cox in Melbourne and Philip Oltermann in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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