Weirdest Animal-Smuggling Incidents
If getting a six-ounce perfume bottle through airport security seems impossible, imagine trying to bypass scanners with 18 monkeys strapped to your waist. In July 2010, one smuggler did just that, flying from Lima, Peru, to Mexico City, only to get busted after acting nervous during a random check, according to news reports.
If successful, he could have sold the monkeys for as much as $1,550 each (and turned a profit of more than $25,000), said the news reports. That’s because, for some people, it’s no longer enough to pick up an animal at the local pet shop. Exotic wildlife has become yet another status symbol—and one reason that illegal animal smuggling is on the rise, with one case weirder than the next.
Animal smuggling is a hideous and shadowy business. It’s also widespread—and lucrative: Freeland, an international organization fighting wildlife trafficking, estimates it at $10–$20 billion annually. In 2009, law enforcement officials recovered more than 18,500 live animals with an estimated value of $35 million—and that was just in Southeast Asia.
Thailand remains a key hub for traffickers, who use it as a gateway to China and other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam. Freeland reported that between 2007 and 2008, undercover agents found brothels in Vietnam offering tiger and bear products to clients as sexual enhancers.
Rare animal parts are also coveted for traditional medicine. An 86-year-old Hmong-American woman who considers herself a shaman was convicted for smuggling more than 1,300 pieces of wildlife, including Asian elephant and clouded leopard parts, through Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport in May 2009.
Of course, airports are often the scenes of the crime bust since security tends to be stricter than at car or ferry crossings. But some people still make it through. In one 2007 incident, a mother and daughter couldn’t resist bringing a pet from Thailand home to Washington State. So, according to news reports, they sedated a baby rhesus macaque and hid it under the daughter’s clothes—as if she were pregnant. They cleared security and were arrested only after bringing their “baby” to a Spokane-area mall and boasting about it.
Of course, seized animals are the more fortunate ones. They are typically transferred to zoos or rescue centers such as Monkey World, an English center that coordinates with governments worldwide and currently shelters more than 240 rescued and endangered primates.
Read on for more strange animal-smuggling incidents. And if you’d like to learn more about this crime and how to help combat it, check out organizations such as Monkey World, Freeland, and the World Wildlife Fund.
A 22-year-old Norwegian man was arrested in a routine check by customs officials after arriving in Norway by ferry from Denmark in October 2009. He was, shall we say, inappropriately dressed. Pythons had been stuffed into stockings strapped to his chest, and 10 cans were taped to his legs, each with a lizard inside. The officials first got suspicious and called for a full body search after finding a tarantula in his bag.
England: Parrot Eggs
Dried seahorses, alligator lizards, plucked dead pigeons…UK Border Agency officials have seen it all. In one particularly memorable incident in September 2010, they stopped a passenger at London Heathrow Airport who was trying to smuggle 40 parrot eggs—including those of the endangered blue-headed macaw—in a customized vest worn under his shirt. The eggs were seized, put into incubators to hatch, and transferred to zoos.
A British man was arrested at the Rio de Janeiro airport in November 2009 for trying to sneak various species of venomous and bird-eating spiders out of the country. The spiders were found in his two suitcases when the man was randomly selected for a security check. The man was said to have run a pet shop in the U.K.
Customs officials at Stockholm airport became suspicious back in 2005 when a woman kept scratching her chest vigorously. When they performed a security check, the reason became immediately clear: she had somehow squished 75 squirmy baby snakes in her bra.
A Bulgarian man traveling to Dublin from Madrid was busted for hiding a tiny chihuahua in his hand luggage. The airport X-ray scanner picked up the outline of the dog, which was in a cage within the luggage. At first, customs officials thought it was a stuffed toy but soon discovered the live dog when they opened up the bag for further inspection. The dog, which had no health certificate or clearance permit, was quarantined by the Department of Agriculture.
Thailand: Leopards, Panthers, Monkeys, Bear
A man from the United Arab Emirates was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, for trying to transport a zoo of sorts to Dubai: two baby leopards, two baby panthers, two baby macaque monkeys, and one baby Asiatic black bear. According to Thai customs officials who had been monitoring the man, the animals had been drugged and were lying in flat cages to limit their movements. Each wildcat could be sold for $5,000 in the Thai black market—and authorities estimated their value was significantly higher in Dubai.
In November 2007, a mother and daughter on vacation in Thailand bought a baby rhesus macaque to bring home to Washington State as a pet. According to news reports, they sedated the monkey and placed it under the 28-year-old daughter’s clothes—as if she were pregnant—and cleared security. They were arrested only after bringing their “baby” to a mall and boasting about it. The monkey was transferred to a primate rescue facility in Oregon.
In July 2010, a Mexican man coming from Lima, Peru, was arrested for trying to get through Mexico City International Airport with 18 endangered six-inch titi monkeys strapped to his body. The smuggler aroused suspicions, say news reports, because he was acting nervous and had a mysterious bulge around his waist where the monkeys were hidden in a girdle. Worse still, when the monkeys were uncovered on his body, two were already dead. The smuggler had bought them in Peru for $30 each and planned to sell them as pets for up to $1,550 each in Mexico.
About 90 minutes into a flight from Sanaa, Yemen, to Damascus, Syria, a drugged baboon awoke and broke loose—terrifying and waking up any slumbering passengers. Crew members scrambled to catch the hamadryas baboon, just one of many that a smuggler had brought onboard in boxes. Instead of selling the baboons for $3,000 apiece as planned, the smuggler was arrested and the baboons repatriated to Yemen.
Italy: Hamsters, Squirrels, Mice, Chameleons
Traffic police in Bari, Italy, stopped a hatchback car for a routine check in September 2009 only to be greeted by 1,700 critters stuffed into boxes in the trunk. The animals included 216 budgies, 300 white mice, 150 hamsters, 30 Japanese squirrels, six chameleons, and more than 1,000 terrapins. According to the officers, the driver had planned to sell the terrapins for about $28 each. The animals were transported to regional zoos while the driver was investigated for links to an animal-smuggling ring and to determine whether his plans involved cross-border smuggling.