Wildlife Watch

Chinese Authorities Seize 68,000 Python Skins

In this week’s crime blotter, getting to the bottom of a snake skin smuggling case.

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Two Chinese policemen fill out paperwork related to the seizure of 900 python skins in July. This week, reports surfaced that 68,000 skins were recovered in China. 

Photos show Chinese authorities rolling them out one by one: python skins adorned with nature’s intricate patterning. The 68,000 skins were recovered this week as part of what may be the largest python skin smuggling case ever, according to the Los Angeles Times, which cited Chinese media.

Customs agents in Haikou, a city in China’s southern province of Hainan, confiscated the skins, estimated to be worth $48 million. The smugglers claimed the items would be used in traditional Chinese musical instruments. According to the Los Angeles Times, Chinese media reported that at least one suspect said the company used fake customs declaration forms to import python skins and eggs. On January 29, authorities arrested 16 people across five Chinese cities in connection with the incident.

Pythons can be found across Asia, Australia, and Africa. They’re non-venomous constrictors that kill by wrapping themselves around their prey and suffocating it. Trade in live pythons and their parts is regulated by an international treaty to ensure their survival in the wild.

Even so, 500,000 skins are imported from Southeast Asia each year, primarily to Europe, according to a report by the International Trade Center, a subsidiary of the World Trade Organization. Python skins are in high demand in Europe and the U.S. for upscale shoes and handbags. 

This appetite fuels a black market trade, which, judging by the size of this one seizure in Haikou, may be huge. “The report shows the problems of illegality persist in the trade of python skins and this can threaten species’ survival,” said the International Trade Center’s Alexander Kasterine, according to the BBC.

Some other wildlife crime busts and convictions around the world this past week:

TUSKS ON A BOAT: Border guards in southeastern China’s Guangdong Province confiscated 221 elephant tusks worth nearly $3 million, according to the Daily Mail. They discovered the tusks—reportedly the biggest ivory haul ever made in China—on an abandoned speedboat crossing from Hong Kong to the mainland. The smugglers had fled.

BONES AND SKINS: Indonesian police busted two suspects for allegedly poaching endangered Sumatran tiger cubs and selling their parts, reports Fox News. Police said that one of the men claimed a connection to a national tiger syndicate network. That suspect had previously been arrested in January 2014 for possessing other illegal wildlife, including helmeted hornbill casques and a stuffed clouded leopard.

TORTOISE TAKING: Indian customs officials seized 146 critically endangered tortoises from an abandoned bag at the airport in Mumbai, reports the BBC. The radiated tortoises and ploughshare tortoises had been wrapped in plastic bags for their intended journey from Madagascar to Nepal. No arrests have been made.

LEOPARD LOOTERS: Authorities in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India, arrested two men after recovering a leopard skin in their possession, says The New Indian Express. The men, both Nepalese, are suspected of attempting to smuggle it into China via Nepal.

This story was updated to clarify that the Los Angeles Times reported that one suspect said the company used fake customs declaration forms to import python skins and eggs.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org

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