National Geographic News
An otter found in a smuggler's luggage.

One of 11 live otters found in a piece of unclaimed luggage at Bangkok's international airport.

Photograph courtesy TRAFFIC

Sasha Ingber

for National Geographic News

Published January 30, 2013

Officers in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport recently discovered 11 live otters in a piece of unclaimed luggage left at the oversized baggage area.

The six smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata)—Southeast Asia's largest otter—and five oriental small-clawed otters (Aonyx cinerea), the world's smallest otters at less than 11 pounds (five kilograms), are under threat in Southeast Asia.

Demand for their pelts and organs for clothing, food, and medicine—in addition to habitat destruction and environmental pollution—have diminished both populations. (Read an exposé of the world's most notorious wildlife dealer, from National Geographic magazine.)

But otters aren't the only victims of the illicit wildlife trade. Stuffed into carry-ons, packed into suitcases, and bundled into crates, traffickers have tried to smuggle all kinds of wild animals through airports.

"The U.S. seizes over $10 million worth of illegal wildlife each year, but this only scratches the surface," said Edward Grace, deputy chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. "[On] any given day, someone, somewhere in the world, is poaching or smuggling wildlife."

Here are six other kinds of wild animals that people have tried to sneak past customs.

Birds: To smuggle more than a dozen hummingbirds (family Trochilidae) past customs, a Dutchman at an airport in French Guiana (map) wrapped each bird in cloth and hid them in a pouch sewn into the waist of his pants in 2011. He even taped the tiny bundles to keep the birds from escaping. His fidgeting led French customs officers to discover the birds.

Monkeys: In 2002, a Los Angeles man returning from Bangkok (map) owned up to hiding two endangered pygmy monkeys, called slow lorises (Nycticebus spp.), in his underwear. His confession came after officials opened up his luggage and a bird of paradise (Paradisaeidae spp.) flew out. He was also traveling with 50 rare orchids.

Crocodiles: A crocodile smuggled on board a domestic flight in 2010 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (map) was blamed for a plane crash that killed 20 of 21 passengers. The reptile escaped from a duffel bag in the cabin and panicked the passengers and crew, according to news reports from the sole human survivor. The animal survived the crash but was later killed with a machete.

Snakes and Other Reptiles: An exotic animal salesman attempting to transport 247 reptiles and spiders to Spain was caught by x-ray technicians in Argentina in 2011. The exotic and endangered species included boa constrictors, poisonous pit vipers, and spiders. They were packed inside plastic containers, bags, and socks.

Tropical Fish: In 2005, customs officials in Melbourne, Australia, (map) stopped a woman who had arrived from Singapore after hearing mysterious "flipping" noises coming from around her waist. They found an apron under her skirt designed with pockets holding 15 plastic bags filled with water and 51 tropical fish.

Big Cats: In 2011, a United Arab Emirates man at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport packed two leopards and two panthers into his luggage—as well as an Asiatic black bear and two macaque monkeys. Every animal was under two months old, and had been drugged for the journey. Some of them were stored in flat cages, while others were placed in canisters with air holes. (See pictures of other animals smuggled through Bangkok International Airport.)

8 comments
Jo B.
Jo B.

anyone caught smuggling wild animals or buying wild animals should be put in a crate and made to suffer the same fate as the animals.  Don't those who would buy these animals see the error of their ways?

Brett Donadeo
Brett Donadeo

Can you please clarify the entry about monkeys? The CNN article linked here only referred to them as pygmy monkeys, not slow lorises. They can't be both, because lorises are not monkeys. Thank you!

Bruce Glaser
Bruce Glaser

i don't understand human behaviour...there is no excuse for this to happen...the punnishment should fit the crime

Peter Stefan
Peter Stefan

Since most animals seem to be smuggled from poorer countries, why don't they set up captive breeding programmes.

This would protect animals in the wild and if the prices were not to high, it would earn income and negate the need for this cruel trade in rare and exotic species.

Sasha Ingber
Sasha Ingber

@Brett Donadeo Thanks for your question. Here are two previous Nat Geo articles about the smuggling of the slow lorises: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/07/photogalleries/animal-smuggling/  and http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/07/070725-animal-smuggle.html

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the slow loris (genus Nycticebus which means "night monkey") is a small nocturnal primate separate from the monkey. On the other hand, Merriam Webster defines a monkey as a nonhuman primate mammal with the exception usually of lemurs and tarsiers. Several other publications also accord with this classification. 

Aeri W.
Aeri W.

The demand for these wild animals is the problem and captive breeding is not a very sound solution to reduce poaching. Poaching is far cheaper than breeding, and more advocacy and education needs to be done on the inappropriateness of these wild animals as "pets." Even bred in captivity, these are wild animals and are not suited for domestic life in someone's home (domestication takes tens of thousands of years). The welfare of these animals would be severely compromised in a captive setting, as the large majority of people are just not equipped to meet the physical, social, dietary, and mental demands of wild animals. Parrots face this same problem. Though the ban of wild-caught birds in the US and EU has diminished the number of birds taken from the wild, poaching still persists and every single species of parrot on the planet, with the exception of the budgerigar and the cockatiel, appears in one of the appendices of CITES. Parrots bred in captivity are still wild animals, and many people struggle to provide for them appropriately. The better approach to combat smuggling would be to work with local communities that make money from poaching and develop more sustainable livelihoods (and tackle the drug cartels as well, which tend to run the illicit animal trade as well as human trafficking - but that's another issue). I think humanitarian and conservation non-profits and NGOs need to work more closely together in this regard - the health of the environment in these poorer countries is often tied to issues of poverty.

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