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.)