The storyline of this summer's blockbuster might seem far fetched but illegal wildlife trade specialists know the plot all too well. In recent years, there have been several instances of people literally smuggling snakes on a plane.
Wildlife smugglers are routinely caught smuggling exotic snakes, lizards, turtles and birds on international flights for the lucrative black market for exotic wildlife as pets and for the specialist hobbyist. This market is worth billions of dollars annually and the profit margins can be even greater than the trade in drugs.
Most countries protect their endangered wildlife and do not allow open trade so wildlife must move through underground crime networks that link collectors to smugglers and illicit traders. To keep one step ahead of law enforcement, criminals constantly find new ways to smuggle live animals for the journey from their homes in the jungle or desert to the cages of collectors.
"As with most crimes, money and passion are the reasons why someone would take crazy risks to smuggle a snake on a plane," said Crawford Allan, Deputy Director of TRAFFIC North America. "Rarity, the novelty factor and unusual coloration make snakes more valuable and desirable, and new, little known species are particularly the 'must-have' for the obsessive collector."
For example, a new snake species that can change color was discovered this June in Borneo. This is so unusual that wildlife trade experts believe that it is only a matter of time before the "chameleon snake" is smuggled for collectors in the U.S. and Europe. TRAFFIC works to keep law enforcement aware of such emerging threats.
Snakes are not allowed in the cabin area of a plane so in order to avoid security smugglers sometimes wrap up and tape live snakes to their bodies or conceal them in pockets, or even in their underwear. In 1998, a man was caught in an airport in Australia with 10 green tree pythons (Morelia viridis) concealed under his clothing. Many of the smuggled animals discovered on planes are endangered species that are under either strict trade regulations or banned from commercial trade entirely.
In rare instances, Customs authorities have found air cargo shipments of live venomous snakes like cobras and black mambas being used as a cover for drug smuggling - drugs are hidden in false compartments within the shipping crates holding the snakes. Most of the time, the snakes themselves are the precious cargo. In 1998, airport authorities in Jakarta once opened 54 boxes labeled "live eels" and found 1020 live, Indian spectacled cobras (Naja naja) which is a highly venemous snake.
TRAFFIC is working with airlines to increase awareness that the "snakes on a plane scenario" is actually a real possibility on their flights, and that airline personnel can help law enforcement stop the smuggling of endangered species. TRAFFIC is currently training authorities, and airlines about the clever tricks used to hide and smuggle wildlife via air transport.