Michael Plank, a California resident, was caught at the Los Angeles airport smuggling 15 lizards from Australia. Two geckos, two monitors and 11 skinks were found worth over $8500 and confiscated. The reptiles were strapped to his body inside money belts. It’s not explained how the smuggling was identified, but I imagine wriggling clothes might be a tip-off to an astute customs agent. The smell that would have almost certainly been generated from reptiles defecating during the trans-Pacific flight also could have played a role.
Importation of reptiles is regulated by the international Convention on International Trade of Endangers Species (CITES), and Mr. Plank faces some pretty severe financial penalties and jail time, although typically people charged with animal smuggling or abuse get off with a slap on the wrist at best. The problem is that people can make substantial amounts of money from smuggling reptiles, and the downside of being caught is often limited, thus making it a lucrative business. However, illegal importation of animals creates risks for disease importation, which can be a major problem for both the human population and native animal populations. Importation of animals is also associated with very high mortality rates – the percentage of smuggled animals that survives transportation is pretty low.
This isn’t the first time this guy has been caught illegally importing reptiles, so it’s safe to assume that he’s done this many times before. Hopefully someone will get serious about the associated human health, animal health and animal welfare problems and start using some of the stiff penalty options that are available. People that buy reptiles should be conscious about the sources of the animals (and their forefathers), and ensure that they are not contributing to illegal activities.