The fact that anyone would be willing to put live snakes in their underwear defies logic, but apparently some people go to all sorts of extremes to try and smuggle exotic animals into Australia. A search through Customs and AQIS media releases over the past few years has revealed some clever (and some not-so-clever) methods of concealment used by passengers and posters attempting to beat our border-protection system. It seems the lure of owning or trading illegal exotic species is just too tempting for some.
Passengers engaging in the risky game of hide-and-sneak have tried concealing snakes and eggs in purpose-built vests and underpants. They’ve tried wearing tights with live pigeons concealed in the legs. A woman was caught wearing an apron under her skirt, containing plastic bags full of illegal fish: Customs officers became suspicious after hearing "flipping" noises coming from the vicinity of her waist. Perhaps even more incredible, a man was recently arrested for trying to smuggle four chinchillas in his armpits.
Illegal snakes, birds (eggs), fish, turtles and lizards have also been found in passengers’ luggage, hidden in tea tins, cosmetic jars, shampoo bottles and underwear. For one smuggler at least, the risk of discovery was too great: airport cleaners alerted Customs officers after locating a metre-long python abandoned in a toilet. Just imagine finding that while relieving yourself after a long flight!
For those preferring a less personal touch, international postage appears to offer another attractive option for attempting smuggling. Creativity abounds in this field: postage items have been detected with a squirrel in a sock, spiders and snakes in a package labelled “baby’s toys”, bird eggs in Kinder Surprise chocolates, and lizards concealed in garden gnomes.
Generally wanted as personal fashion items, ‘extreme pets’ or to trade illegally, some species are endangered novelties, some are just really pretty, and others are downright dangerous. Once these animals have entered Australia, there is a significant risk of them escaping or being released into the environment, establishing pest populations and threatening our unique fauna and flora. There are also serious issues of animal welfare (a lot of smuggled animals are found dead, or die shortly after arrival), trading endangered species (contravening the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and risks of bringing in exotic diseases.
Under the national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the import and export of wildlife is strictly regulated. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is $110,000 and/or 10 years jail. Wildlife smuggling is a despicable act that poses unacceptable risks to Australia’s biodiversity. Hats off to the Customs and AQIS officials (and their canine heroes) who do such a good job of thwarting it.
[Written by Dr Wendy Henderson, guest author]