Two German men were sentenced in Dunedin District Court today after they pleaded guilty to separate charges of hunting protected wildlife and possessing four rare jewelled geckos.
The geckos came from two sites on Otago Peninsula and one site on Banks Peninsula.
Dieter Ernst, (56) and Thorsten Richartz, (47) were sentenced to four and a half months jail and are suspected of being involved in the illegal international trade of the geckos. This was the longest sentence the men could receive given their guilty pleas.
Today’s sentencing was the result of a joint operation involving the Department of Conservation (DOC), Police, NZ Customs Service, the Wildlife Enforcement Group (WEG), and the public.
In sentencing the men, Judge Stephen Coyle said the maximum penalty should be increased to deter people from coming to New Zealand and stealing our valuable wildlife.
“This is offending against all New Zealanders. I am concerned that some of the jewelled geckos previously stolen from Otago Peninsula and then returned appear to have been re-stolen and are now listed for sale on international websites,” he said.
Commenting on the sentence the men received, DOC’s Otago Conservancy Solicitor Pene Williams said, “Given the current maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, this was as long as we could expect. The penalties are under review but, unfortunately, the review has not been completed in time to deal with these offenders.”
Stu Williamson from WEG said, “This sentence sends the message that we take the protection of our wildlife seriously and will prosecute offenders.
"The sentencing follows on from two similar cases last year where WEG apprehended smugglers attempting to take geckos out the country. In both cases, the offenders were prosecuted and received prison sentences that reflected the level of commitment by the agencies involved."
The arrests followed a surveillance operation based on information from the public. “Reporting suspicious activities and vehicle licence numbers can provide vital clues in identifying offenders,” Mr Williamson said.
DOC Coastal Otago Area Manager, Robin Thomas said the Department is appalled that people steal wildlife. “Jewelled geckos are found nowhere else in the world and are worth more to NZ as a natural asset. People come to NZ to see our special places and wildlife,” Mr Thomas said.
Two of the four stolen geckos were pregnant when they were taken and subsequently three live young have been born. Most of the geckos have been returned to the wild but one animal will not be returned until spring due to health problems it suffered after it was taken.
- The jewelled gecko is unique to New Zealand and fully protected. The total population, estimated to be about 5000, is in decline and limited to three areas in Otago and Canterbury.
- They are much sought after in the international illegal reptile trade, particularly in Europe, because of their rarity and attractive colouring. Individual animals can change hands for more than 5,000 Euros. Other NZ geckos and skinks are also sought after.
- Two German tourists were last year imprisoned for three and four months respectively after they were found guilty of attempting to smuggle jewelled geckos out of NZ.
- DOC actively manages the known lizard population groups with strong community support through the Jewelled Gecko Management Plan. Threats include animal pests, habitat loss and theft. “The locals are the department’s best protection against stealing - they are our most effective eyes and ears,” Robin Thomas says.
- Otago Peninsula landowners, the local community and organisations such as STOP (Save Otago Peninsula) undertake predator control in the areas where jewelled geckos are found.
- Through sponsorship by Setpoint Solutions, DOC is able to assist with advice and the purchasing of equipment. DOC also employs Otago University PhD student Carey Knox to undertake survey work.