‘Astronomical Money’: How Smugglers Made Tens of Millions Moving Rare Birds Around the World

‘Astronomical Money’: How Smugglers Made Tens of Millions Moving Rare Birds Around the World

An organized crime group spent years smuggling rare exotic birds from South America and Asia to collectors across Europe. Now, one of their former couriers is speaking out.

Key Findings

  • The group smuggled thousands of birds into Europe, selling them to private collectors and even conservation centers that claim to protect rare species, according to court documents and customs officials.
  • Austrian officials who investigated the wildlife smuggling ring estimated it could have made around 30 million euros a year ($36 million at the time).
  • A smuggler told OCCRP that he made an average of 50,000 euros on each trip to deliver birds, and sometimes as much as 140,000 euros. Austrian authorities found evidence that the smuggling ring employed at least five such couriers.
  • Birds often died in transit, but their deaths were seen as the price of doing business, given the high profit margins in the wildlife trade. The carcasses of birds that perished were dumped in the trash.
  • Although only captive-bred rare birds are allowed to be traded, the smugglers frequently used fake CITES permits, or reused permits many times over, to move birds into the European Union. Metal rings around birds’ legs are supposed to prove that they were bred in captivity, but the smugglers also found a way to fake those.

Stanislavas Huzhiavichus had two palm cockatoos and 12 birds of paradise in the trunk of his rental Audi A4, and a gut feeling that something wasn’t right.

Everything was fine with the birds — he had made sure they were fed and watered, and the cockatoos’ black headfeathers were long and lustrous — but the parking lot where he was about to hand them over in exchange for a briefcase full of cash was a little too quiet.

Usually, the wildlife smuggler met customers in the relative safety of their homes. But this time the buyer, a Swede, had insisted on doing the handover in a public place, at a strip mall about 45 minutes’ drive outside Vienna. Still, Huzhiavichus ignored his misgivings. This was going to be a big deal: The birds were going to be swapped for 133,000 euros ($161,000) in cash.

Then “all hell broke loose,” he recalled.

Commandos from the Austrian Interior Ministry’s elite Task Force Cobra stormed out of a white van, blocking the exits of the parking lot. Huzhiavichus made a move to run, but was quickly brought down by an officer. The operation was over so fast that the afternoon shoppers at the nearby garden center barely noticed the commotion.

Police seized Huzhiavichus’s laptop and phones that day in April 2018, their contents providing a rare glimpse into a global wildlife trafficking ring that spanned three continents, smuggling exotic birds from South America and Asia into Europe. Regular customers included wildlife conservation centers, a breeder of Arabian horses, and wealthy bird aficionados across Europe.

“Increasingly, our analysis found that our perpetrator was part of a large-scale smuggling ring,” said Andreas Pöchhacker, a veteran Austrian customs agent who led the case. “We were surprised, but we quickly came to understand how the whole thing was organized.”

Huzhiavichus spent four months in an Austrian jail, but was released after a not-guilty verdict that was later ruled to have been issued in error. The court sought his re-arrest, but he had already packed up and left for his native Ukraine. Since then, a second case launched against Huzhiavichus in Austria has found him guilty in absentia of racketeering.

But OCCRP managed to track Huzhiavichus to his home in Ukraine, where he revealed more about the inner workings of the multi-million-dollar wildlife trafficking ring behind the Austrian bird bust.

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Messages sent between the shadowy kingpin who controlled the smugglers and a high-level co-conspirator confirm Huzhiavichus’ account of a network that took advantage of CITES — a system created to govern the trade in rare species — to traffic some of the world’s most-threatened birds across the globe.

“We deliver from Chile, we want to bring from Venezuela. We work in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Asia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Croatia,” one message reads.

In another, a member of the ring tells a potential customer that ”my people are in Australia now and they can bring eggs and birds from there.”

“No one checks his plane, because he has diplomatic status. But the plane is registered in Panama. … it is not a problem for him, so if you want to deliver birds to any country, he will deliver.”

OCCRP was unable to confirm if this was more than just boasting. But text messages between the smugglers, as well as photographs found by Austrian police on Huzhiavichus’s cell phone, show the group flew birds from Asia to Europe on commercial planes. Along the way they bribed an array of officials and border police.

Many of the birds died en route from their rainforest homes, where they were often caught in glue traps on tree branches and their legs and wings broken as they were removed, before being sold to the network’s couriers. Crammed into cages or boxes for the journey to the traffickers’ basement processing facility in Kyiv, those that did survive shipment often did not last long.

But this didn’t matter to the smugglers, Huzhiavichus told reporters, because the profit margin on trafficked birds was so high. With some of the most sought-after specimens, they could make money even if just one or two birds survived a trip.

Austrian authorities found evidence of at least five couriers who delivered parrots and other rare birds across Europe for Huzhiavichus’ boss. Others traveled farther afield, visiting sites where birds were sourced in Papua New Guinea and other locations. Austrian officials estimated the ring could have made around 30 million euros per year ($36 million at the time).

“These disturbing findings remind us that wildlife trafficking affects every continent, and it is happening right here in Europe,” said John Scanlon, chair of the Global Initiative to End Wildlife Crime. “Far too often we see low penalties and a lack of enforcement, making wildlife crime a dangerously low-risk and high-reward activity.”

The Bird Man of Kropyvnytskyi

No crime is more rewarding than trafficking wildlife, according to Huzhiavichus, now 30, who worked as a veterinarian before falling in with the bird smugglers.

“Smugglers of narcotics and weapons, they don’t know about the better business — of course it’s the business with animals,” he said.

After spending four months in an Austrian jail in 2018, Huzhiavichus returned to Ukraine, where he swears he is officially retired from the bird-smuggling business. Today, he runs a small shelter for birds out of his family’s house in Kropyvnytskyi, a small city in central Ukraine where Soviet Ladas and luxury SUVs share the streets. When Russia invaded earlier this year, he stayed to take care of the birds, despite artillery and air attacks in the area.

Huzhiavichus's family home in Kropyvnytskyi

Denise Hruby

Huzhiavichus’s family home in Kropyvnytskyi, Ukraine.

Over hours of interviews in Kyiv and his hometown before the war began, Huzhiavichus explained the economics of bird smuggling and the role he played. As he spoke, his African gray parrot, Syoma, perched on his shoulder, occasionally leaning in to nuzzle him.

Stanislavas “Stas” Huzhiavichus sits with a bird perched on his shoulder

Denise Hruby

Stanislavas “Stas” Huzhiavichus at home in Ukraine.

Each trip to deliver birds, Huzhiavichus said, usually earned the group around 50,000 euros, though the sum could be as high as 140,000 euros. Birds of paradise could sell for between 25,000 and 30,000 euros ($31,000 to $37,000 at the time), palm cockatoos for 20,000 euros ($25,000) and Amazon parrots for almost 10,000 euros ($12,400). And the smugglers had very few expenses.

“This business really does not require anything,” he said. “You need some connection with customs … and a little money, a few thousand euros, and that’s all — you have the start-up capital for this.”

In the Austrian jail, gang members and drug traffickers at first derided Huzhiavichus as the “bird catcher.” But he said their mockery turned to amazement when he explained how profitable the trafficking of rare birds could be. Some inmates even proposed they go into business together, forming a new smuggling ring with Huzhiavichus at the helm.

“If you are unscrupulous, you can just go to Indonesia, buy that palm cockatoo for $500 and sell it in Europe for $16,000. It will pay off like 34 times for one bird. And if you bring 10 birds… This is a very simple way to easily and quickly make a lot of money — astronomical money.”

Huzhiavichus said he always dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, even though the job isn’t well-paid or particularly respected in Ukraine.

In 2017, two years after he graduated from the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine, he replied to a job advertisement that promised work with exotic animals. That evening a man calling himself “Konstantin Nikolaevich” called for an interview, asking about the birds Huzhiavichus had nursed back to health in his childhood, his studies, and his internship at Kyiv zoo.

He was hired on the spot. Konstantin told Huzhiavichus his new job was to keep several dozen birds alive. Huzhiavichus soon discovered they were kept in a windowless basement storage facility below a shopping center on the outskirts of Kyiv, where many of them arrived in terrible condition with broken wings and missing feathers.

Huzhiavichus describes the facility as a terrifying place, unventilated and lit by fluorescent lights, with a lingering stench of mold and feces in the air. In a dozen rooms, cages were sometimes stacked from floor to ceiling, so tightly packed that the birds were in constant distress. Workers called it “Arkham,” Huzhiavichus said, after the grim mental asylum in the Batman comics.

The shopping center on the outskirts of Kyiv

Elena Loginova/OCCRP

The shopping center on the outskirts of Kyiv where smuggled birds were kept in a basement.

After seeing the conditions, the young veterinarian had reservations about the job, but Konstantin offered more than double what his university classmates were making, plus a rent-free apartment in one of Kyiv’s upscale neighborhoods. Still, Huzhiavichus said it took him a month to fully understand that this was not, in fact, a breeding center, but a trafficking facility. On average, around a third of the animals died. Sometimes, it was the entire shipment.

The traffickers dumped the carcasses of the birds in the trash, and sent the sickly, “almost dead” survivors to buyers in the European Union. “Without treatment, these birds would die in two months,” Huzhiavichus said.

He said he convinced his boss to let him install ventilation and start feeding the birds a more varied diet. Survival rates improved and within a few months the head vet was fired and the boss, Konstantin, put Huzhiavichus in charge.

Huzhiavichus described Konstantin as a cipher. Nobody at the bird-processing facility ever saw him face-to-face. He used SIM cards from China, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Ukraine, and Papua New Guinea and was an ever-present figure behind the scenes of Arkham, watching staff through dozens of surveillance cameras and ordering them back to work if he caught them idling.

Kostantin revealed little about himself, though he boasted of having high-profile political connections, and claimed he had been a major in the Ukrainian security services.” (The Security Service of Ukraine did not respond to questions.)

Konstantin went by several aliases, according to Huzhiavichus, but his preferred identity was “Alex Adamec,” supposedly a Slovakian man. The name “Alex Adamec” appears on so many documents unearthed by Austrian police — including sales agreements and fake veterinary certificates — that customs authorities opened an investigation into him, until Slovakian police informed them that the man did not exist.

Phone calls to numbers used by Konstantin went unanswered. Ukraine’s Ministry of Environment did not respond to specific questions about the bird smuggling ring.

From the Rainforest to the Steppe

Throughout the tropical island nations of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, another young Ukrainian man, Maksym, was tasked with sourcing the birds.

At these markets, anything can be bought for the right price. “If I find a unicorn for sale in a market in Indonesia, I would not be surprised,” said Chris Shepherd, the executive director of Monitor Conservation Research Society, who has been investigating bird smugglers for more than two decades.

Huzhiavichus claimed that Maksym also poached birds in the jungle, aided by corrupt law enforcement. When Austrian police confiscated Huzhiavichus’ phones and a laptop, they retrieved photos Maksym had sent, showing him with officers from the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary, some armed and wearing tactical gear, and members of an indigenous group.

The long transports to Europe often didn’t go well. About six months after he started working at “Arkham,” Huzhiavichus opened a shipment of small green parrots, each no larger than a mobile phone. In three plywood boxes, the smugglers had stuffed a total of 300 birds. Only 17 had survived the journey.

When Huzhiavichus confronted Konstantin, he said the boss offered to make him a courier, which would give him more direct responsibility for the birds’ well-being — and pay 1,000 euros ($1,200) per trip, all expenses paid. Huzhiavichus’s career as a wildlife smuggler had officially begun.

The European Union generously supports anti-wildlife trafficking efforts abroad, but experts say it’s breathtakingly easy to smuggle wild animals within the bloc. Traffickers like Huzhiavichus are aided by the lack of border controls inside the 26-country Schengen Zone, as well as a lack of attention to enforcement. In his new role as a courier, Huzhiavichus said he smuggled more than 1,000 rare birds across Europe with ease. The fact that he was a dual citizen who also held a Lithuanian passport made it especially simple for him.

He said the smugglers’ favored method was bribing train conductors in Kyiv to lock the birds in compartments and smuggle them into the EU. Then he would pick them up at major train stations in cities like Budapest, from where he could drive anywhere within the Schengen Zone without fearing inspections. In his journal, he kept a meticulous record of the animals he sold, plus detailed menu plans for what they liked to eat.

Riding in Cars With Birds

Documents found in Austrian court files give insight into the trips around Europe that Huzhiavichus made as a courier delivering birds to customers.