Most Outrageous Live Reptile Smuggling Stories
Illegally traded live reptiles comprise a huge but largely hidden international black market.
Rob Laidlaw’s report Scales and Tails – The Welfare and Trade of Reptiles Kept as Pets in Canada estimates that the global value of smuggled animals including reptiles exceeds US$10 billion per year.
Even though that estimate based on statistics from the usually credible source Interpol, it is still only a guess; other sources speculate that the illegal wildlife trade is as high as $30 billion per year. Exact numbers are not available simply because of the relative ease of smuggling wild reptiles past overworked customs officials. This is particularly true during peak border crossing times.
Below are some of the most outrageous stories where the perpetrators were caught attempting to smuggle live lizards, tortoises, turtles and snakes into other countries.
Lizards Hidden In German Smuggler’s Underwear
A German man was arrested at a New Zealand airport when shocked customs officials discovered 24 live geckos and 20 skinks hidden inside 8 hand-sewn compartments in his altered underwear.
In a January 2010 article, Thaindian News estimated that the reptile smuggler could have sold the 44 hidden lizards for roughly $100,000 in Europe.
The perpetrator with the reptilian underwear was sentenced to 14 weeks in prison and a $3,540 fine for his crimes.
Had the German wildlife poacher made the 21-hour flight from New Zealand to Germany without detection, he would have been on his way to becoming a wealthy man.
Reptile King Caught with 1475 Live Reptiles in Van
This past April, a 32-year-old Canadian man pleaded guilty to hiding the following live reptiles in the side panels of his GMC Safari van:
- 1,426 turtles
- 36 tortoises
- 13 snakes.
Of the 1,475 reptiles seized, 36 tortoises and 9 snakes were listed as protected species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The Canadian reptile poacher had arranged live specimens from American suppliers to be shipped to a courier operation in New York State. The accused then took his wife and two children on a supposed shopping trip to an American Walmart store while he drove to the courier center to pick up containers stuffed with live reptiles.
SunMedia’s Rob Lamberti reported that the seized reptiles could have fetched roughly $50,000 (Canadian currency) had they been sold in the illegal pet trade.
The Ontario Court of Justice imposed a:
- 6-month jail sentence
- 3-year ban on importing or exporting live animals unannounced residence searches by wildlife officers during the 3-year ban period
- $500 fine under the Administrative Monetary Penalty System (AMPS).
In addition, the reptile smuggler will have to pay over $5,700 in restitution charges for care of the captured snakes, tortoises and turtles. This includes transportation charges for returning many of the reptiles to their native Louisiana marshes, and fees incurred to move some of the protected species to qualified care centers.
Smuggled Snakes Almost on a Plane
September 2010 was a busy month for reptile smugglers at airports in two South East Asian countries notorious as distribution hubs for the illegal wildlife trade.
In Malaysia, a suitcase crammed with 95 boa constrictors accidentally opened on a conveyor belt at the Kuala Lumpur airport. Also scrunched inside the suitcase were two rare rhinoceros vipers and a matamata turtle. This past September, the Malaysian reptile trafficker was sent to prison for six months and fined $65,000.
Also in September 2010, Indonesian officials at a Jakarta airport intercepted shipping containers in which 25 bags of rat snakes plus almost 3,500 pig-nosed turtles were hidden.
In total, two tons of live reptiles were jammed into shipping containers labeled “fresh fruit” destined for the Indonesian capital.
On the global black market, Jakarta is well known for expositions in which endangered species including tortoises and other reptiles are readily available.
Big Cash for Live Reptiles on Black Market
These outrageous reptile smuggling stories have common threads, even if the crimes involved different reptile species and were committed in distant countries around the globe.
Big money is often involved. Air cargo is frequently the preferred method of transportation, partly because the reptiles can be squeezed into smaller containers and weigh less than other animals. There is also the perception that reptiles require little care and can survive longer than other forms of wildlife like birds.
Perhaps the biggest concern for wildlife environmentalists is how relatively small the penalties are for reptiles smugglers.
Given the relatively low inspection rates by overworked customs officials, that low risk-reward ratio can encourage repeat offenders to continue their quest for easy cash rewards.