Australia’s environment minister orders investigation into export of hundreds of endangered parrots

The environment minister, Sussan Ley, has appointed an auditor to investigate her own department over the export of hundreds of native and endangered parrots to Germany over a three-year period.

Guardian Australia revealed in 2018 that the Australian government permitted the export of hundreds of birds to a German organisation despite concerns they were being offered for sale rather than exhibited.

The Berlin-based Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots (ACTP) received permission to receive 232 birds between 2015 and November 2018. It was more than 80% of all the live native birds legally exported from Australia in the same period.

The exports included threatened species such as Carnaby’s and Baudin’s black cockatoos, worth tens of thousands of dollars each.

Ley said on Wednesday she had asked the secretary of the department of agriculture, water and environment, Andrew Metcalfe, to launch an independent investigation into all decisions by officials relating to the export of native and exotic birds, specifically those that went to the ACTP. Financial services firm KPMG is conducting the audit.

She said Australians needed to be able to have faith that the system was protecting wildlife. “I am disgusted by suggestions of native animals being sold overseas for exhibition, and then actually being used for profit,” Ley said.

The review will examine management of native bird exports, the circumstances in which permits were issued allowing exports to ACTP, and the department’s capacity to regulate the system.

Guardian Australia’s investigation revealed the environment department approved the transfer of more than 200 birds to Berlin over three years on the grounds they would be used for a zoo exhibition despite the organisation having no facilities that were freely open to the public.

Private messages on social media showed native Australian birds apparently from ACTP had been offered for sale for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The German federal agency for nature conservation said at the time it was aware of those offers. With respect to advertisements for a pair of glossy black cockatoos imported from Australia by ACTP it said it had looked into the offers and found the birds had been legally imported and bred, and there were no limits on trade.

Both Australia and Germany are signatories to the convention on international trade in endangered species (Cites), which governs the importing and exporting of rare and endangered birds.

Australian law says no native species can be exported for commercial purposes.

The parrots in this case were purchased legally from local breeders and birdkeepers, and exported after the environment department recognised ACTP as a zoo.

The species exported included glossy black cockatoos, yellow-tailed black cockatoos, and a variety of lorikeets.

Multiple emails from the Australian environment department to ACTP, obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information laws, revealed concerns that exported birds, or their offspring, would be sold.

They showed department officials repeatedly relied on statements written by Cites officials at the German federal agency for nature conservation, and by ACTP itself, to verify the nature of the organisation.

Departmental correspondence noted that the Australian aviculture industry had expressed concerns about the number of birds sent to ACTP. A briefing addressing these concerns was sent to the then environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, in October 2017.

Responding to the previous investigation the head of ACTP said the organisation was “extremely careful to follow all the rules and regulations set by both our German authorities and those of the other countries whom we deal with”. He accused Guardian Australia of harassing ACTP associates and fabricating stories about the organisation

The environment department told Guardian Australia in May that its inquiries had not uncovered any evidence of breaches of permit conditions or international environmental law.

Ley said on Wednesday that she did not know whether there had been breaches, but there had been “too much conjecture for too long”.

“We need to put a line under it once and for all,” she said. “If there are lessons to be learned, we need to learn them. Ultimately, I want people to have confidence in the process.”

The Queensland Coalition MP Warren Entsch, who raised concerns about the issue as early as 2017 and has repeatedly called for an independent investigation, welcomed Ley’s decision and said an audit was long overdue.

“What I want to come out of this review is that we return integrity to the process of zoo to zoo transfers,” Entsch said. “And I want the officers that facilitated this process to be held accountable.”

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