Protected animals in The Netherlands not sure of their lives
The Netherlands, a distribution country. Many observers find that this also applies to illegal trade in protected animal species. One year before The Netherlands hosts the prestigious conference Cites, the global organization which regulates trade in endangered animal species, it is ominously silent here. Everything seems to be tradable.
This article by Eelco van der Linden and Peter Blom was published on September, 2 2006 in the Dutch newspaper "het Dagblad van het Noorden” and has been transcribed here, in agreement with this newspaper.
Updated on January, 12 2009 following the alarming news on that day of the abuses by the Dutch Parrot Refuge Foundation (NOP) in Oerle, The Netherlands.
The tortoise protector Henk Scheffer from the village of Roden can only confirm this.
Proud and majestic. From a height, dark brown eyes above an enormous yellow beak gaze piercingly out. They are picked up by the equally piercing gaze of a highly advanced police camera. A total of six Steller Sea Eagles, an extremely rare species only to be found in Kamchatka, the most easterly point of Russia, are here in the cages of Charles Brosens' Avian revalidation centre in the village of Zundert. Earlier this year the Dutch General Inspection Services (AID) confiscated them from a large breeder of birds of prey. The Stellers were due to be sold on to a trader in Germany, whereas they were actually only to be passed on to zoos. The price per head of 25.000 Euros would justify some extra protection. Brosens is impressed. "Look at those claws”, he says, 'If they were planted on your head, your skull would be crushed.” Brosens is also surprised. "I had just got them in, when amusement park owners were on the phone to ask if I was willing to part with the birds. And then to think that the birds were here in utmost secrecy.”
Brosens explains that this is typifies the situation in The Netherlands with regard to protected animals.
"It looks like a free for all. Everyone has papers which show that animals have been bred, everyone is involved in preserving the species. People want to play God by breeding wild animals, but their purpose is to earn even more money.” To his horror, Brosens sees that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish legal from illegal and that one big grey area is being created. As chairman of VOND, a Dutch organisation consisting of (six) recognised refuge centres, he strives to keep all forms of animal refuge a serious matter. "Anyone can start up a parrot refuge centre. Before you know it, animals captured in the wild will be” laundered” there to become bred animals and all will be for sale. Unfortunately, Dutch legislation facilitates many opportunities for malpractice and there is no control.”
Henk Scheffer from Roden represents The Netherlands within SOPTOM, the international organisation for preservation of the tortoise. He remembers the string pulling last year about some five extremely rare, captured Radiated Tortoises, which were eventually allocated to Blijdorp Zoo. This was totally illegal, according to Scheffer. The creatures should have been sent straight back to their country of origin, Madagascar. That the Dutch politician Marijke Vos asked parliamentary questions about this three times made no difference whatsoever. The man from Roden suspects that the tortoises are now dead. Scheffer, who has been running a refuge for tortoises for some twenty years, warns of partially legal and partially illegal trade in these popular animals. On the internet site "Marktplaats” (the Dutch "eBay”), a person called "Linda” advertises regularly with animals who would be considered to enjoy "a large extent of protection” But the Authorities do nothing about it, says Scheffer. His refuge gets no support whatsoever, whereas he has to pay 50 Euros annually for dispensation. The retired animal protector's activities cost him personally an additional 2500 Euros.
The most important trend, globally speaking would seem to be a blurring between what is legal and what is illegal: papers issued by Cites, the organization responsible for regulation of trade in protected animals, are used for various animals, rings and chips are transferred from one animal to the other. The magic word is "breed” and there are many tricks for this. Many poor exporting countries readily provide papers showing that the animals have been bred and not, as in reality, captured in the wild. You need to know your business to be able to make a distinction. Who can prove that animals born of a pregnant animal captured in the wild are not the offspring of the legal parents kept here in captivity? The export-quota applying to certain countries for a certain Cites animal are often fiddled with. For instance, animals can be captured in the Congo and legally exported via South Africa as South African quota to The Netherlands. And a lot is possible in The Netherlands.
With the exception of monkeys and wild cats, every animal can be kept at home. A python, a poison dart frog, an eagle, all possible. Obligatory registration of exotic animals is nowhere to be found. No standards whatsoever have been set for housing; valid papers are often a side issue. On estimate, some million birds, reptiles, amphibians and tortoises illegally enter The Netherlands annually. Internet and the almost weekly animal markets create demand - also for that one exceptional animal, which needs to find its way to the client via illegal channels . It arrives thus in a matchbox, a toilet roll, or a simple postage parcel. For each animal that arrives alive, three die.
Politicians do not seem to be willing to take action. The Minister for Agriculture chose not to list animals which could be kept. "He is the champion of deregulation, he lets the sector decide what is ethically responsible and nothing happens”, says David van Gennep from the Dutch foundation AAP, the oldest Dutch animal refuge. Van Gennep was in the advisory committee for that list and left it in anger. "The minister wants a short list of animals which may not be kept. The result will be a number of hits, such as the African elephant, the rhinoceros and the Siberian tiger.” Van Gennep also considers the fusion of legal and illegal trading to be the greatest problem. "Demonstrable illegal trading is sporadic. The real problems lie in the legal circuit, also where animal welfare is concerned.” He recently experienced an example of this. The AAP foundation had been approached by the authorities to assist in a raid on a large legal trader. "What I witnessed there was too horrific for words: a huge shed filled to the roof with tens of thousands of birds, including the rarest of species. " "Not that the owner was very careful about this. The freezers were literally bursting at the seams, with corpses of saddle billed storks, herons and thousands of smaller birds. There was no care and hardly any water. The inspectors had tears in their eyes, but explained that they often came across this sort of situation." The AAP was requested to come along, because there were also mammals in the shed, including two European otters, which were on the list of most protected animals. "The animals were from a small German zoo, which obviously wanted to offload its surplus. The owner cannot be accused of any illegal trading. He will be followed for mistreatment of animals, and will probably get away with a fine and no doubt continue in the same vein.”
Just as interesting as painful was that only a limited number of animals were impounded, including the four mammals, with destination AAP. Van Gennep: "The door was closed again. The thousands of birds, which were in much worse condition and even died whilst we were there, were left to rot away. They were not checked.” According to Van Gennep it is a matter of priorities and money. "An inspector said openly that the public prosecutor had set clear boundaries for the numbers. There also seems to be a judicial limit to the number of law cases. Very easy when you know that that number has been exceeded, because then you can carry on regardless.”
Insulted, the AID denies being aware of a quota. "The animals' welfare has highest priority. What seems unacceptable to outsiders could very well be a situation for which there is no jurisprudence. Decisions were taken following consultations with Veterinaries”, a spokesman explained. He agrees that impounding and offering temporary refuge to animals could form a logistic problem.
The incident fits in the picture painted of the current situation by Wil Luijf. He was an AID employee in the early Nineties and was very successful with impoundments. Luijf presently does research with his own organization Fast Forward. He ranks as the only remaining specialist in the field of illegal animal trading in The Netherlands. "Very little action is taken. People are not interested in complaints, do not want to spend money. A tortoise in a refuge centre costs the state a couple of Euros a day. There will also be questions about welfare, as when in 1999 became known that customs officers obeying orders from the Ministry of Agriculture put hundreds of squirrels through a shredder.” "It is clearly better to let things carry on as they are and to focus on other priorities. Whilst the illegal circuit could be cleared with a sharp measures, hardly any detective work is done at all. At present, action is only taken when there are traces of a suspect, but you MUST keep looking!”
Elies Arps, specialist in the field of illegal trading with the World Wildlife Fund: "the nine Cites specialists with the AID have been transferred. The Annual Report shows that AID employees may spend 300 hours a year on upholding CITES norms. On the other hand, Veterinary research receives unlimited attention”.
According to the AID the CITES norms are well kept, and that is not difficult. "In the case of birds, we check the ring, which may only be placed on very young birds. It is impossible to place such a ring on older birds. We also check the documents and look to see whether dispensation applies. Each trader has different dispensations. All animals after the second generation may be kept or traded. It is actually quite simple,” said the spokesman.
Going on the impoundments, two conclusions may be drawn: either too few norms are upheld or very little trading is done. In 2004, customs officers, AID and police impounded a total of 39 live exotic animals; in 2005: 50. Not exactly impressive numbers.
Tonnie van Meegen, initiator and director of the Dutch Parrot Refuge Foundation (NOP) is of the opinion that very few animals are intercepted , and he also knows why. "Animals are, after all, not humans, drugs or weapons, they simply do not have any priority. A great shame, because if you search thoroughly, there is a lot to be found. Formerly, thousands were impounded.” "Trade is flourishing, if I had 1000 birds here, I would have sold them all by tomorrow. There is great demand and the prices are high. A number of years ago, a Japanese nightingale cost 15 Guilders, the price has risen to 125 Euros. Hummingbirds go for 3000 to 4500 Euros." Van Meegen is in favour of a DNA-test on parents and offspring. "Only in this way will you be able to remove the bad. I would say, start with the rarest animals, but that doesn't happen, because then you would open up a huge can of worms."
End of article Linden and Blom.
The TV program Tros Rader (12-01-2009) had a further bone to pick with van Meegen from the Parrot Refuge Foundation (NOP):
The NOP states on its website that thousands of animals have been given shelter since its foundation. And that these animals have all been given a fine home in the grounds of the NOP, better even than a cage in a living room. A wonderful initiative, one would think. However, there are strong suspicions that the refuge leaves much to be desired.
From the Dutch Newspaper, Eindhovens Dagblad, 12 January:
Animal pathologist, dr. G. Dorrestein from Vessem examines about five hundred dead parrots from Oerle annually. He considers this death rate normal. Zoos such as Artis in Amsterdam and Blijdorp in Rotterdam find a death rate of 15 percent of the population per year acceptable, he says. The fact that the refuge in Oerle falls under that level, is a good achievement. "Because many parrots (85 to 90%) arrive with an injury or a disease.” Dorrestein was present at the "raid interview” between van Meegen and the Radar employee. He stated on that occasion that the death rate in the park in Oerle was not exceptionally high. This was not aired on Monday.
The program did show many photographs of dead parrots covered in blood, but it was not clear where these photographs had been taken. Dorrestein suspects that the complaints about the park stem from the way ex-owners view animal welfare. "There are people who wheel their parrots around in prams, wearing bonnets. They feel that Van Meegen should pat each parrot on the head very day. And that while the birds are free to fly around in his park.”
On Monday, Tonny van Meegen said that he had many enemies, especially amongst traders and Veterinaries. He suspects that the attack on his park comes from that group. "Birds that come here are lost to trading. I sell nothing.” He fears for collapse of his life's work.