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Wildlife smuggler sentenced to 11 years in Brazil, charged with involvement in organised crime

Kirill Kravchenko, a notorious Russian wildlife smuggler, has been recently sentenced in Brazil to 11 years imprisonment and a fine of 32,000 US dollars, for an attempt to smuggle reptiles, amphibians and spiders out of Brazil.

Kravchenko was detained in Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo in March 2021 when he attempted to board his flight to Russia. He had in his luggage 50 lizards of 3 different species, 20 toads of different species, an adult spider with 50 juveniles and 100 other invertebrates, according to O Globo, a Brazilian newspaper.

Kirill Kravchenko. (Image from Kravchenko's profile on Russian-language social network VKontakte).

O Globo reports that the heavy sentence given to Kravchenko is because the Russian was found guilty of a number of crimes. These included - mistreatment of wild animals, exposing people’s lives and public health to direct and imminent danger (from animal pathogens such as viruses and bacteria), killing, capturing and utilizing wild animals without permits, exporting, selling and transporting wild animals, and – involvement in organized crime.

The court ruled that the animals Kravchenko was arrested with were not intended for his own private collection, as he claimed, but were to be resold for profit, via a multinational network of wildlife traders.

The Russian’s mobile phone provided evidence of the global nature of Kravchenko’s network – he had contacts in every corner of the world, including Germany, Czech Republic, Madagascar, Belarus, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Mexico, and several South East Asian countries.

One of the names mentioned by O Globo is Giaccomo Ceccarelli.

The Brazilian judiciary thought that it could have been an alias of Kravchenko, but a person by this name is on a watchlist, suspected of buying New Zealand’s Naultinus geckos – highly protected species that Kravchenko is thought to have smuggled out of New Zealand and now breeds for profit in Russia. His wife Ekaterina even showed off their Naultinus on her YouTube channel, as reported by SVIS Initiative.

Ekaterina Valeyeva with Auckland green gecko (Nautilnus elegans). (Screenshot from Частный Экзотариум YouTube channel.)

Kravchenko was referred to by Brazilian media as a biologist, but he holds no known research or teaching position. O Globo reports that Kravchenko portrayed himself as a private collector of exotic reptiles, amphibians and spiders, employed on a salary of 700 USD a month in a St Petersburg laboratory that makes veterinary medicine.

However, Kravchenko’s expensive globe-trotting lifestyle – regular, frequent trips to Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South East Asia, does not match his claims of a modest salary and regular employment. In Russian social media reptile circles, Kravchenko is called a professional “brakonier” – poacher. Kravchenko was also brazen – posting images of his collecting trips, where he and his ex-wife posed with the reptiles they caught.

The prices that Kravchenko charged for one lizard are higher than his purported 700-dollar monthly salary. In one conversation that the Brazilian judiciary obtained from his phone, Kravchenko asked for 1,500 euros for a pair of male lizards of one species, while in another conversation Kravchenko agreed to sell a pair of another species that he referred to a “Pinocchio” for 2,500 euros.

In Brazil, Kravchenko’s brazenness proved his undoing. First, he was already on the customs watch list because of his previous visits which were suspected to be to collect animals. After the confiscation of his passport at Guarulhos International Airport, he continued to collect animals, later boarding a bus to the city of Foz do Iguaçu on the tri-border area with Argentina and Paraguay. Once there, he may have tried to leave Brazil via the porous border.

Fortunately for the animals he poached, the Federal Police were watching Kravchenko and stopped his bus in the state of Rio de Janeiro. More than 300 animals were found in his luggage, sending him back to jail.

The “biologist” Kravchenko’s treatment of the animals he captured and packed into his luggage was inhumane. O Globo quoting from Ibama (the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) stated that at the time of Kravchenko’s arrest one animal was already dead. 74 more died within a week.

Kravchenko had achieved notoriety in Russia because of a tragic love triangle between reptile keepers. His current wife – Ekaterina, used to be married to Arslan Valeyev, Russia’s most famous reptile collector and YouTuber. After Ekaterina left Valeyev, allegedly for Kravchenko, Arslan Valeyev killed himself by letting a black mamba bite him. He transmitted the suicide live on his YouTube channel. The incident was widely reported around the world.

Russia has a sad history of permitting exotic animal trade, and Russian animal smugglers are notorious for their willingness to capture and smuggle some of the rarest and most sought-after species.

Currently, three Russian citizens are awaiting trial in Sri Lanka. In February 2020 they were arrested in Horton Plains National Park for possession of more than 500 animals (although they claim that the number of animals was far smaller) including insects, spiders, chameleons, snakes, geckos, snails and scorpions. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed the legal proceedings and Sri Lankan authorities rehoused low-risk prisoners in the community to reduce the risk of Covid-19 outbreaks in overcrowded jails. Currently the trio are staying in a guesthouse and trying to raise money to pay their fines.

One of the detained is Alexander Ignatenko, reported by Russian media to be head of small mammals’ department in a zoo in the city of Rostov. Igantenko is suspected of involvement in smuggling of animals from India and Uganda, something that he denies. The three Russians are facing a 40,000 USD fine and lengthy prison sentences. They deny all charges, claiming in media interviews that the reason behind their arrest was to extract money. They claim that they were in Sri Lanka for research and the purpose in collecting the animals was to take photos photos of them later.

Reptile collecting has become a grave threat to species and ecosystems. More than a third of reptile species are now in trade and newly discovered species appear on sale within months of their description. The Species Victim Impact Statement (SVIS) Initiative has drafted SVIS for a number of reptile species - these statements help judges and the prosecutors understand the serious harms inflicted on the environment when reptiles are poached from the wild. Such harms are not limited to the suffering of individual animals, but also includes harms to ecosystems, as well as to the resources and services that these ecosystems provide to humans.



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