An Australian wildlife expert has called on the federal government to "immediately investigate" how a mob of wallabies ended up wandering the streets of northern Vietnam — some 5000 kilometres from their natural habitat.
Images first emerged on social media earlier this week appearing to show three wallabies scavenging around bushes on the outskirts of Cao Bang, a province in the country's north. Vietnamese authorities claimed they'd likely "been brought from Australia by smugglers" who apparently "dropped them along the Vietnam-China border" after they were discovered with the animals.
But, exactly how they were exported out of the country alive remains a mystery.
Wallabies likely Australian, but 'impossible to tell'
Ben Pearson, Country Director at World Animal Protection, said there's no way to be certain of how the animals came to be so far from home, but "given that the export of live native species is illegal for commercial purposes", it "seems highly likely" they were victims of Australia's rife "illegal wildlife trade".
"Obviously what you're looking at here is Wallabies in Vietnam where they certainly shouldn't be," Pearson told Yahoo News Australia. "It's hard not to be suspicious that they were somehow smuggled there, and we have no way of knowing [how], but it's certainly a concern."
Pearson said that while it's possible the animals may have originated from Papua New Guinea, where there are at least 190 species of mammals that are "closely related" to those found here, it's most likely the case they were trafficked from Australia. Wallabies are not naturally found in Vietnam.
"What we'd like to see is the Australian government launch an investigation to see whether or not those wallabies did come from Australia," he said. Pearson wants the government to release any information they have obtained and to work with Vietnamese authorities to not only discover where they came from, but to ensure the animals are looked after.
Illegal wildlife trade worth billions per year
Globally, the illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth US$10 to $23 billion per year, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and data conducted at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). Though, it's "almost impossible to tell" how many animals exactly are smuggled annually.
Aussie reptiles and birds are in particular high demand overseas, Pearson explained, but animals of all different species are illegally exported in distressingly high volumes.
"Illegal trafficking is huge," he said. "Unfortunately in Australia, mostly, it's about reptiles and birds. That's really what you see — but you also see hundreds of others [species] too. Authorities are constantly catching people trying to smuggle.
"And Australia is a popular source country, because so many of our animals are unique to our ecosystems."
While there have been cases where Australian animals were sourced for use in medicine and for scientific studies, by and large, they're trafficked to be sold as pets.
"Wildlife trading itself is one of the major global illegal commodity trades," Pearson said. "I think it's the fourth largest in the world, and you're talking all the big ones, drugs and everything, but wildlife trade is right up there.
"A lot of people who get these animals, they actually want them for pets. Now, in the case of these wallabies, god knows if they did in fact originate from Australia — they may have come from a private zoo — but it's the pet trade really that seems to go on there."
It's not just our animals being trafficked out of the country, smugglers also bring thousands of exotic animals in as well.
Between 1999 and 2016 over 2,795 "alien vertebrates" were detected in Australia, and many of these were from illegal holding, breeding and importing, according to the Centre for Invasion Species Solutions.
Pearson said while it may seem like there's little the everyday Aussie can do to prevent our wildlife from the cruel trafficking trade, people can still make a difference by reporting sightings of our native animals overseas to Aussie authorities.
Huge danger in 'mixing species'
He added that there are many, serious biological dangers that can occur when two species from different continents meet.
"We've all just basically spent two to three years working out of our bedrooms because of things like the mixing constantly of wild animals," he warned.
"One of the major sources of new diseases comes from when we trade animals. We move them, we come into contact with some we've never had before, and in doing that, we also then come into contact with new diseases... we've seen that in the past with Covid.
"It just increases the risk. If you do this kind of thing, you're going to mix diseases and the consequences would be catastrophic."
According to the Vietnamese Express, the three wallabies found earlier this week are now being transported to a local wildlife centre, where they will be further evaluated and their future assessed.
It's believed they are not "sick or a threat to the environment, and so do not need to be rescued or destroyed."
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