In 2010, Bjørn Åvik was driving from Sweden into Norway, carrying alcohol, tobacco, and four African gray parrots — intelligent, ash-colored birds he intended to breed and sell in Norway. But instead of declaring his items, Åvik skipped Swedish customs. A camera detector then registered his car, which was selected by Norwegian customs for an inspection.
The officers seized the parrots because Åvik lacked the necessary permit from the Norwegian Environment Agency, a national authority responsible for implementing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, a multinational agreement to protect wild animals and plants.
Åvik was eventually convicted for attempting to smuggle an endangered species and sentenced to 30 days in jail with two years of probation. As for the parrots, at the time of seizure, they were healthy and had another 50 or more years to live. Åvik says he expected the confiscated birds to be rehomed in a zoo. Instead, a veterinarian killed them under the direction of the Norwegian Environment Agency.
Over the past 15 years, Norwegian authorities have seized smuggled animals at least 30 times. In many of these instances, the animals were ultimately killed, raising questions about how the country handles confiscated animals at its borders. Wildlife trafficking experts and animal rights activists accuse the Norwegian Environment Agency of systematically killing endangered confiscated animals. And the problem, they say, extends far beyond Norwegian borders: Smuggled animals around the world often face a similar fate.
According to CITES guidelines, officials may euthanize confiscated animals, but only as a last resort, after trying to repatriate the animals to their country of origin or rehome them in local zoos or shelters. CITES does not require national authorities to track what happens to animals after they are confiscated, however, and the resolutions are not legally binding. As a result, critics say, national authorities too often kill animals in an effort to uphold a treaty designed to protect them.
Systematic euthanization is a "paradoxical way of enforcing the convention," says Ragnhild Sollund, a criminologist who has spent over a decade tracking this practice in Norway.
Some experts say that there are legitimate, practical reasons for euthanizing. Trafficked animals can carry serious diseases; rehoming them is notoriously complicated; and repatriating them to their country of origin may actually exacerbate wildlife trafficking if these nations are themselves corrupt, says Ronald Orenstein, a zoologist, lawyer, and consultant for the global nonprofit Humane Society International, which he represents as an observer at CITES meetings.
Norway has no specifically designated zoos or rescue shelters that can regularly take in confiscated animals, and until recently, domestic law essentially forbade repatriation. Because of these constraints, experts say, killing was often the only viable option.
Norway's situation "echoes what we've seen in many countries," says Loïs Lelanchon, wildlife rescue program manager for the global nonprofit International Fund for Animal Welfare. The Philippines, Australia, and Belgium, among others, have all faced similar predicaments. "Frankly," he says, "it's everywhere."
Kristiansand is a small industrial city at the southern tip of Norway. On a recent February morning, after more than 2 years of Covid-19 restrictions and a long winter season, it's a snowed-in ghost town. Normally, however, Kristiansand is a lot busier: People hop on and off ferries from Denmark, just 2 to 3 hours away, and cargo ships come in, unloading large boxes of imported goods.
Because of this regular flow, Kristiansand has become a Norwegian hub for wildlife trafficking. Robert Ilievski, a veterinarian who works at Kristiansand's border control post, has stopped several smugglers over the years. In one case, he recalls having to euthanize an illegally imported turtle that could have lived another 30 years. "It's so difficult," he says.
Ilievski is on the front line of a global battle against animal trafficking, an illegal market estimated at $7 to 23 billon per year, and often run by sophisticated, international networks. Around the world, at border control posts like the one in Kristiansand, customs officials are tasked with catching wildlife traffickers and enforcing the CITES treaty.
The CITES treaty came into force in 1975, as a multinational effort to ensure that the international trade of wildlife and plants does not threaten the survival of endangered species. CITES has become a powerful tool in regulating trade, enabling the recovery of endangered animals like the Nile crocodile and the South American vicuña. To date, no CITES-listed species has ever become extinct as a result of trade.
But CITES has played a lesser role in ensuring animal welfare standards are maintained, experts say. CITES resolutions act as guidelines, not law, and they don't require member countries to monitor how they handle confiscated animals, making it virtually impossible to know the extent of euthanization practices around the world.
David Whitbourn, a spokesperson for CITES, points out that the treaty does encourage countries to report basic data on the handling of confiscated animals. He adds that CITES conducted a survey in 2017 that included 58 member countries and suggests that just 6 percent of respondents named euthanasia as their most frequently used option for dealing with confiscated animals. Lelanchon, however, suspects that number is a vast underestimate. "This is a lot of what government authorities don't want to advertise," he says.
In Norway, the Norwegian Environment Agency, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority, customs, and local zoos keep minimal, if any, records of what happens to seized animals. In an effort to better understand the situation, Sollund has retrieved seizure reports from customs and cross-referenced them with court records. Her results show that at least 41 animals were euthanized between 2008 and 2016, including almost 20 African gray parrots, a bengal cat, and a Chilean rose tarantula.
But Sollund says that number may actually be in the hundreds. Iliezski says there have been at least 20 cases at Kristiansand over the years in which he has had to euthanize animals — yet only one shows up in the customs reports Sollund compiled.
In the past three years, though, euthanization of animals has seemingly ceased, according to veterinarians at Kristiansand and the Oslo Airport. Officials aren't entirely sure why, but they point to a number of factors: Covid-19 border restrictions might have reduced opportunities for smuggling, says Sollund. If that's the case, then one might expect an uptick in illegal activity once restrictions loosen, she adds — which they now are.
Additionally, Norway lifted its ban on private ownership of reptiles in 2017, a move that reduced smuggling. But Ilievski remains wary. In an effort to maintain profits, he guesses, traffickers might eventually shift their efforts, targeting species whose importation remains illegal. There will always be people who want animals that are not allowed, he says.
CITES management is complex, wrote Janne Bohnhorst, head of the Norwegian Environment Agency's Section for Invasive Species and International Trade. In an email, she noted that her agency does "what is best for the animals based on an overall assessment." The agency did not directly respond to a question about whether euthanization of confiscated animals was, or still is, the country's official policy.
National authorities seek to find the best solution for the confiscated animal while also weighing costs and logisitical challenges, Whitbourn wrote in an email to Undark. "We do not believe that it is undertaken lightly at the national level," he added, and in certain situations, euthanization may be "the alternative that best serves the interests of conservation or the animal itself."
A recent amendment to Norway's domestic law suggests that, until recently, the Norwegian Environment Agency was trapped in a legal predicament that essentially made euthanization a go-to policy. That's because the country did not allow permits to repatriate animals brought in illegally. When animals were confiscated, the Norwegian Environment Agency would have to seek out nearby zoos — and the agency's requests for housing were often rejected — or kill the endangered CITES-listed animals.
Under the new amendment, Bohnhorst says, repatriation is possible "if the situation allows it based on an overall assessment." But experts still worry this only applies to the most endangered species. And Bohnhorst points out that, under a CITES resolution, countries are "obligated to prevent the return of the species," when repatriation may exacerbate wildlife trafficking. (Other experts point out that because CITES provides guidelines, not rules, individual countries may decide what to do with confiscated animals.)
Regardless, there are valid reasons to avoid repatriation, explains Orenstein, the Humane Society consultant. Beyond the risk of handing animals back to the illegal market, it can be notoriously complex to track the animal's country of origin. African gray parrots, for instance, often come from the Congo and may be shipped between two or three countries before arriving at their final destination. "Returning to the country of origin is ideally the right thing to do," says Orenstein. "Practically it may often be the absolutely wrong thing to do.
Given the lack of legal clarity, rehousing the animals in zoos would seem to be the best alternative to euthanization, but Norway's zoos lack the capacity to take in many new animals. Kristiansand Zoo, for instance, has rejected multiple requests. "We want to try to help," says Rolf-Arne Ølberg, the director of animal care at the zoo. "But we have to see that we have space for them, we have a long term plan," and that "we can give them a good animal welfare."
Taking in animals, he explains, is a fraught process that requires serious ethical and ecological consideration. For one, Kristiansand Zoo needs to know where the animal comes from and evaluate whether it poses a health risk to other animals already residing there. Zoo staff also need to consider whether they have the space, habitat type, and resources to accommodate the animals in the long-run. In the past, Ølberg says, he received frequent requests to house certain kinds of animals — especially snakes, parrots, and turtles — which he inevitably had to reject to avoid overcrowding.
The zoo hosts all kinds of animals — from Scandinavian wolves and moose to Siberian tigers, flamingos, and orangutans. Many of these animals have large open spaces to accommodate their needs and habitats. Others, like the two rainbow-colored macaw parrots perched inside a small shed-like space, await the construction of new enclosures. The zoo also houses several African gray parrots sent here after being confiscated. Their space is currently full.
"I don't have room for more parrots now," Ølberg wrote in a follow-up email. "So if we get a request we probably would have to say no."
But even if the zoo did have the space and resources, it's unclear whether there is an imperative for staff to take in confiscated animals. "We're not a rescue center," Ølberg says. "We very rarely want to take confiscated animals; we have to put them in quarantine. It's a lot of extra work for us."
Other countries face the same issues as Norway, says Lelanchon. In 2017, Australian border officials found 11 snakes, nine tarantulas, and four scorpions hidden inside a shoebox. Eight of the tarantulas died in transit and the remaining animals were killed by Australian authorities. In 2018, Swedish officials euthanized 500 lizards by throwing them into liquid nitrogen, after failing to determine their origins. Morocco and many other countries lack resources and the legal framework to repatriate animals, says Lelanchon: If an animal's origins can't be determined — as is often the case — the animals may be killed.
Addressing these challenges will entail building a system that allows animals confiscated at borders to be quickly identified, transported, and temporarily housed before an evaluation is made, says Orenstein. The United Kingdom, for instance, a hub for wildlife trafficking, has a rescue center right next to Heathrow Airport that shelters animals while officials seek permanent housing with local zoos and rescue shelters.
Spain and the Netherlands have also partnered with organizations that help authorities process the influx of smuggled animals. While many border control post officers don't have the expertise or capacity to determine whether a smuggled animal poses a risk (e.g. if it is venomous or carries a virus), these countries have established close ties with local organizations and experts that can help resolve exactly these questions, says Orenstein. The cost of not having this network can have dramatic consequences: In the Philippines, for instance, 339 parrots were confiscated and killed after border control officers incorrectly suspected that the birds carried a harmful virus.
Tackling this issue will also mean working with countries to make repatriation more feasible, building additional rescue centers, and providing basic resources at quarantine facilities so that the weight of responsibility doesn't fall squarely on zoos, experts say. Further, rescue centers need to operate under a financially sustainable model, says Lelanchon, since so many of them can end up becoming shoddy facilities that can't take care of animal welfare in the long-run. One way to do this, he says, would be for offenders to pay an additional fee that goes towards the care of smuggled animals.
Finding the money and political interest to develop better infrastructure for confiscated animals is easier said than done. In Norway, Øystein Storkersen, a principal adviser at the Norwegian Environment Agency, has already tried to establish a rescue and rehabilitation center. Storkersen didn't respond to interview requests, but according to Sollund, the government didn't want to fund the project.
"This is why we have seen, all these years, all these ad-hoc solutions," says Sollund. Unless the country commits to making real change, Sollund says, confiscated animals stopped at Norwegian borders may continue to face a cruel two-fold fate. "The victims here are the animals: First they are victims of trafficking, and then they are killed by the authorities."