I avoided the "snakes on a plane" title, as ever since the (bad) Samuel L. Jackson movie came out, every reptile smuggling headline seems to use use it. Regardless, would you like to be on a long trans-Atlantic flight with 247 smuggled animals, including a collection of venomous vipers? Probably not.

Fortunately for passengers on a flight from Buenos Aires to Madrid in early December, security screeners took note of the "organic substances moving inside" Karel Abelovsky’s baggage. Inside, they found over 200 reptiles and mollusks, including 15 venomous vipers. Among these were two yararas (Bothrops jararaca), a viper that can grow up to 160 cm (~5 ft) in length, and which is a common cause of snakebites in some regions. Two of the animals were dead by the time they were found. Probably many (or most) of the others would have died during transit.

Animal smuggling is a big problem for many reasons:

  • It’s an major animal welfare issue, since it is reasonable to suspect that only a small minority of smuggled animals survive the process, and even fewer thrive in their new homes.
  • Smuggling of endangered species can threaten survival of some species in the wild.
  • Smuggling of venomous or otherwise dangerous species can put people at risk. This includes people that purposefully buy dangerous animals but can’t handle them, people who buy them not knowing they are dangerous, people at various points of the smuggling process (e.g. security screeners) that might come across the animals, and the general public who can be exposed if the animal escapes.
  • Moving animals between regions always carries some risk of bringing along infectious diseases. The less control, the greater the risk.

Mr. Abelovsky has been changed with smuggling and faces up to 10 years in prison, but typically people get off with minimal punishment. Weak enforcement and the potentially lucrative nature of smuggling means that it’s going to continue until the problem gets taken more seriously, both in terms of investigation and charging of other people in the process (e.g. where did he get the animals, who was he working with, where were they going to go?) and application of penalties that are severe enough to discourage people.

Unfortunately, while an incident like this gets a lot of attention, it just represents the miniscule minority of smugglers that actually get caught.