National Geographic Daily News

Laurel Neme

for National Geographic

Published May 7, 2014

With its abundant rare species and remote locales, Brazil has long been known as an epicenter for wildlife trafficking. But that's changing, thanks to a group of dedicated investigators who are pursuing smugglers to the ends of their jurisdiction and beyond.

In 2006 firefighters in the Niterói district of Rio de Janeiro stumbled across a boa constrictor. But this was no ordinary boa. It was the world's first known—and remains the only known—wild leucistic specimen of Boa constrictor constrictor, better known as the red-tailed boa. The snake was just a few weeks old.

Leucism is a condition in which pigmentation is reduced but not entirely absent, as in albinism. The young boa appeared white, but it had dark eyes. Because the white color would attract predators, its chances of surviving in the wild were slim.

Authorities brought the snake to the Niterói Zoo, a private foundation that rescued and rehabilitated injured wild animals. Shortly afterward, a YouTube video announced the find to the world.

That's when the trouble started.

"Boa Holy Grail"

As the only one of its kind, the white boa was coveted in the reptile trade for its ability to propagate uniquely colored descendants, or "morph" snakes.

Almost as soon as the video was posted, collectors in online forums expressed their desire for the snake's progeny, with specialists valuing the rare specimen at $350,000 to $1 million.

One American snake breeder, Jeremy Stone, was captivated and visited Brazil to see the "boa holy grail."

He wanted to buy the snake and take it back to the United States for breeding, but he knew he'd never be able to do so—at least not legally. Brazilian law allows exportation of a wild-caught snake only with a permit, and obtaining a permit for this particular boa seemed to be a pipe dream.

"I got a Special Call from a friend," he later wrote on his website. "This was the most amazing Boa Constrictor I have ever laid my eyes on, and we quietly worked out negotiations to obtain the animal."

In 2009 Stone set out to breed a similar leucistic boa. He called it his Princess Diamond project.

Breeding snakes to produce unusual color combinations is popular. "I'm trying to find the rarer, the funner, the coolest looking," Stone said in an Internet radio interview. "I want stuff that pops out. That's the stuff that keeps me going."

When a snake with a recessive gene, like leucism, is paired with a normal one, the resulting offspring will be heterozygous (or het), meaning that it won't exhibit the trait but will carry the gene for it. Over generations, if both parents have the recessive trait and pass it on, that trait will appear in their offspring.

Stone's initial attempts were unsuccessful, but by 2010 he'd produced a handful of babies. In 2011 he began offering Princess Diamond snakes for sale. Prices ranged from $12,500 to $25,000—ten to a hundred times higher than for other boas—reflecting the commercial value of snakes with the potential to have entirely white offspring.

Snake Missing

In 2011 Brazil's National Environment Agency (IBAMA) closed the Niterói Zoo for mistreatment of animals. Their inspection also revealed that three-quarters of the zoo's 635 animals had disappeared, among them the white boa. IBAMA agents questioned the zoo's administrator, Giselda Candiotto, who said she'd taken the boa home and that it had died.

IBAMA agents doubted her claims. They wondered why the carcass of such a rare animal would be trashed rather than sent to a research facility.

Niterói Zoo's veterinarian confirmed that he'd cared for the snake for a year at Candiotto's house but that one day she said not to come because it had died. He said he should have done a necropsy, but he never saw the dead snake's body.

IBAMA officers notified the Brazilian federal police (BFP) about the possibility of smuggling and provided a comprehensive report detailing the snake's disappearance and where it might have gone.

Operation Lucy

The BFP's environmental crimes division launched an investigation into the snake's disappearance. They called it Operation Lucy. Key support came from the division's offices in Rio de Janeiro and Boa Vista, in Roraima state; its central authority for international legal compliance; the INTERPOL authority in Brazil; the Superintendency in Manaus, in Amazonas state; and IBAMA.

IBAMA had found photos and videos of what seemed to be an identical snake on several Internet venues—YouTube, online forums, Facebook—all connected to American snake breeder Jeremy Stone.

The first step was to confirm that Stone's white boa, Princess Diamond, was the one from Brazil.

While Stone claimed his snake was a different subspecies (Boa constrictor imperator rather than Boa constrictor constrictor), the sleuths believed that because those two types of boas are essentially identical, this was a ruse by Stone to throw them off the track.

So BFP forensic scientists used zoometrics—body marks and measurements—to compare videos and photographs of the Brazilian snake and Stone's. The similarities were remarkable. Both had the rare leucism gene. Their scales were white, but the irises of their eyes had dark pigmentation. Both had black spots at identical locations on their backs, left sides, and right cheeks. And both had identical yellowish stains on their nose and face.

Suspicions Confirmed

With strong suspicions that Stone's snake was the Brazilian original, investigators next had to prove that it had been smuggled out of the country.

Searching immigration databases, they found that Stone had traveled to Rio de Janeiro in 2006, probably to visit the Niterói Zoo, and again in January 2009.

The latter trip raised red flags. Entry records showed that Stone and his sister, Keri Ann Stone, had entered and exited Brazil on foot on the same day (January 22) at a little village (Bonfim) in the extreme north of the country, on the border with Guyana.

"That did not make sense for me," said Franco Perazzoni, a special agent with the BFP. "Why would this guy come to Brazil and spend just a day in a little village in the middle of the Amazon?"

In addition, four days earlier authorities had questioned Stone and his sister at the Manaus airport. Officials had suspected the two of drug trafficking because the sister was wearing a fake pregnancy belly (it had a hollow compartment), which neither she nor her brother could adequately explain. Also, they both had multiple tickets out of Brazil by various modes of transportation, a ploy smugglers often use to avoid surveillance.

Phone records of zoo administrator Candiotto proved she was in Manaus at the same time as Stone, and that her husband, José Carlos Schirmer, who also worked at the zoo, traveled with Stone that same day.

Examination of their banking records showed a deposit at that time of 500,000 reais (about $250,000).

"The fact is," Perazzoni said, "that Stone came to Brazil in 2009, the same year the Brazilian leucistic boa constrictor disappeared from the Niterói Zoo and the same year that he started his Princess Diamond project in the United States."

Searches and Arrests

On September 5, 2013, Brazilian authorities searched the homes of Candiotto and her husband in Niterói and Ipanema. That same day, U.S. federal authorities scoured Stone's premises in Utah and seized eight of the white boa's babies. The boa itself was nowhere to be seen. Stone claimed it had died in January 2013 and was buried in the backyard.

A short time later, on September 24, the BFP arrested Candiotto and her husband on charges of international wildlife trafficking and smuggling. They also issued an arrest warrant for Stone on the same charges, which was disseminated via an INTERPOL red notice.

On January 8, 2014, Stone and his sister were indicted in the United States District Court in Utah for unlawfully importing the white boa constrictor. The indictment says Stone brought the snake from Brazil into Guyana, where a veterinarian provided a false certificate of origin saying it had been caught in Guyana and that Stone then used this false information to import the boa (along with others) into the U.S. It further notes that Stone bred the white boa and sold its offspring to buyers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Where's Princess Diamond Now?

One of the stolen boa's young was sold to Italian snake breeder Attilio-Franco Gariboldi, who by June 2013 had succeeded in producing a white leucistic boa just like Princess Diamond.

Over time other breeders, too, could produce their own leucistic boas from Princess Diamond's offspring, which they, like Gariboldi, presumably had purchased in good faith.

Brazilian authorities have two theories about the disappearance of the boa. One is that the animal is alive and was sent somewhere out of reach of law enforcement, perhaps to a colleague of Stone's in Canada or Europe. The Brazilians note that Stone posted many videos of Princess Diamond during 2013 and provided no notice of its death. Or, and this seems more likely, given how difficult it is to keep these snakes healthy in a confined space, the boa is already dead.

"My main concern now is to find Princess Diamond and get it and its offspring back to Brazil," said BFP special agent Perazzoni. "Boa breeders worldwide must be alerted that smuggling Brazil's patrimony is wrong. We will not tolerate things like that."

Jonathan Kemp
Jonathan Kemp

I consider it a rescue. Plain and simple. Conditions were bad and it had no chance of being bred and shared with the world. Kudos to Jeremy for having the balls to do something about it. As for the babies I thinks its disgusting that Brazil thinks they own them. The snake in question I can see but its offspring? F U Brazil on that one. And just a quick reminder, the captive bred  pet trade especially regarding reptiles would not be anything close to what it is without  the original animals being smuggled. It was a necessary evil at one time. And in the case of the leucistic bcc it was a necessary evil once again. Good work Jeremy, hope you get a slap on the wrist. 

Kevin Barker
Kevin Barker

Jeremy has already won the case against the U.S.

S Kushner
S Kushner

I do not understand why the boa should be returned to Brazil at all. The fines could be paid and that would be that. Many reports state the conditions in which the original animal in Brazil was held were poor. It concerns me that any exotic animal (with specific husbandry requirements) would be put in the hands of the government and possibly be returned to such conditions. If you think what is being done is good for the animal, you are mistaken. Breeding boas is not an "experiment." It is no different than breeding any other pet for color/pattern, size, temperament, etc. The man many of you curse is responsible for a respectable collection and cares deeply for his animals. If what has allegedly been done is true, then that is unfortunate. 

To put it simply, the animal is indeed genetic gem and certainly would not have had good chances in the wild. It has a place in captivity here in the US within the hands of a breeder that cares properly for him. There is nothing wrong with owning a "pretty" pet and breeding it to produce more. If you have something against the breeding of reptiles for color/pattern you might as well be against the owning of any animal purposely bred to look one way or another. 

Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson

All boas, regardless of species, can easily be maintained in confined space in captivity, if proper husbandry protocols are followed. I am fairly certain that it is still alive.

pamela letstalkaboutcorsica
pamela letstalkaboutcorsica

what an awful story, doubt if there'll be a happy ending there - severe punishment should be carried out, if ever they lay their hands on those concerned, if ever.

Jason Halfpenny
Jason Halfpenny

String the woman up Brazil, she's sold the snake to be an experiment for idiots like Jeremy Stone. Cross breeding of wild animals should be banned unless you're a legitimate Zoo, I hope one day Mr Stone, you are set upon by the snakes you exploit you scum bag.

Frank Castillo
Frank Castillo

There are so many problems with this story it isn't funny.

So how does the Brazilian government have any rights to an animal that was the property the Niterói Zoo, "a private foundation" when it allegedly went missing in 2009? I understand their right to the animals once seized in 2011, but they don't have retroactive ownership rights to any animal that has ever been at the zoo. And asking why a zoo that was shut down for neglecting animals didn't complete a necropsy is laughable.

Photographic evidence is unreliable at best. As animals mature their coloration and imperfections change as well.

Lastly, if it was such a prized animal, how do you not keep track of it for 5 years (2006-2011)? Not to mention, if they had to close the zoo down for animal neglect, instead of having leucistic boas somewhere in the world, it likely would have died and there would be ZERO leucistic boas in the world, which of course is much preferred, right? If Mr. Stone did in fact smuggle the animal out of Brazil, though I don't condone breaking the law, he did the herpetological world a big favor.

JL Johnson
JL Johnson

"Or, and this seems more likely, given how difficult it is to keep these snakes healthy in a confined space, the boa is already dead."

Except that it isn't difficult to keep these animals healthy in a confined space. Boa c. imperators and Boa c. constrictors rarely need an enclosure more than 8 feet long. You can artificially imitate both heat and humidity within the enclosure itself. Even someone with relatively limited means can accomplish this quite easily and regulate feedings and health checks when appropriate.

It isn't as simplistic as keeping freshwater fish, but it's easier than keeping saltwater fish. (If this makes sense.)

Someone with Stone's money and expertise, not including Stone himself, could easily keep Princess Diamond for a couple of decades at least.

robert brooke
robert brooke

I find it disturbing that a veterinarian would be an accessory to wildlife smuggling.Were any charges brought against the veterinarian in this case?

Ryan Parks
Ryan Parks

@Adrian Stubergh Stensrud That's not the same snake, and I don't see your relevance in posting this. Neither is it leucistic or a boa constrictor, but a piebald ball python.

Megyn Ruffrage
Megyn Ruffrage

@Jason Halfpenny For the record, the majority of zoo breeding and husbandry establishments, at least for reptiles, are first conducted by passionate hobbyist. My own local zoo has our local herpetology society to thank for a lot of it's reptiles. 

Sarah Haynes
Sarah Haynes

@Jason Halfpenny  It's not cross breeding or an experiment. He was breeding it to other snakes of the same species. SMH

Chris Homsey
Chris Homsey

@Jason Halfpenny So it is okay to kill a human being for this, unless you are given the privilege to breed snakes by a shiny badge? Apparently state permission makes this less exploitative?

Frank Castillo
Frank Castillo

Also, with all of the precautions they took, why would they walk in through a point of entry that would leave a documentation trail? If Ms. Stone really was wearing a false belly, why wasn't the leucistic boa in it? How did they get the snake into the USA? There are still a lot of unanswered questions in this case.

Brad Beloat
Brad Beloat

@robert brooke In this case, the Vet did both the Animal and the Herpetological community a tremendous service. Having worked with the zoo and being well aware of conditions there... the Vet saved the life of this animal by getting it out of there. Now that those genes have been passed on and replicated in multiple countries... There is a unique population of these animals instead of merely a video of a beautiful, yet deceased animal. The scientific community can study the genetic make up of these animals, and people all over will be able to appreciate their beauty before too much longer. All because the Vet acted. Now, do I believe their motives were as idealistic as the outcome? Hell no. But the fact remains we have access to a beautiful genetic anomaly that we otherwise would not had this situation not happened. They gambled and got caught, and need to make that part right, but I'm still glad they did it.

Bart Vandenhaute
Bart Vandenhaute

@robert brooke  it's (some) veterinarians who make animal cruelty possible all over the world imo. dog breeding, cat breeding, cattle etc... they often live in horrible conditions (the breeding animals), there cubs or youngs get taken from there parents waaay to soon, they say that they have had there shots but more often they didn't get anything!! this is only possible if there are vets who partisipate in these practices. so yes there are quiet a lot of crooked vets i'm affraid. this is not new, not all vets become vets for animal welfare, some do it for the money and nothing more!! 

Chris Homsey
Chris Homsey

@Seth Forbis No, that kind of warped sense of justice has to come from the UK

Ann Jones
Ann Jones

@Bart Vandenhaute -Veterinarians have NOTHING to do with the kind of "puppy mill" operations you are talking about. The breeders can get their vaccines from feed stores if they vaccinate at all, and do not have to involve a vet. The puppies are pulled early while they still have their mothers antibodies, before they can start showing signs of illness. The fact that people are allowed to do this is the problem. It has nothing to do with crooked veterinarians. And you clearly have no idea how hard it is to get into vet school (much harder than human med schools, as there are far fewer vet schools) and the cost of their education VS what they make upon graduation. To think any person went thru vet school "for the money" is a JOKE, and a stupid one. There are a lot more profitable careers that involve far less work and more respect.

Alice Severi Gonçalves
Alice Severi Gonçalves

@Frank Castillo  But I agree with you. Unfortunately our government doesn't care about our animals or people.... So that's something that you shouldn't be surprised. 
It's our reality and it sucks so much... I hate to see something like this happening and it's kind amazing that they were able to discovery something about this snake! I'm sure someone with a lot of money is behind this story or it wouldn't had got so far!  


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