Unpacking the Criminal World of Wildlife Trafficking through Airports

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 6, June 2024

By Trishala Ashok

Luggage? Check! Passport? Check! Tickets? Check! Smooth-coated otter... Check?

As I take my seat on the plane, my gaze lingers on the overhead luggage compartments, pondering the possibility of a wild animal concealed within them. Could there be a juvenile king cobra in a can of pringles? Or an Australian blue-tongued skink stuffed inside a Milo box? Or what if a tiny tamarin is drugged and hidden in a backpack? Or an endangered cockatoo jammed inside a water bottle with holes?

A juvenile of an unidentified macaque species crammed into a basket alongside two other deceased macaques. In the wild, monkeys forage for food, socialise, groom, play, and rest. They exhibit complex social behaviours and hierarchies. Sadly in this case, they had succumbed to death from being confined without access to water or food. Photo: Trishala Ashok.

Tricks Of The Trade

These are not bizarre thoughts, but reflect the grim reality of wildlife trafficking, scenarios I often came across during the research for my film, ‘Hidden Routes: Detecting Wildlife Crime in Airports’. I read reports of the outlandish ways wild animals are smuggled. Endangered live Moroccan tortoises were disguised as cakes and stuffed into pastry boxes. The smuggler attempted to convince Berlin airport security that they were chocolate cakes designed to resemble wild tortoises. A traveller was arrested in French Guiana for smuggling 12 live hummingbirds in his baggy trousers. The birds were wrapped in cloth and taped up to prevent them from escaping from their makeshift, cramped travel compartment. During a flight from Bangkok to Taipei, an air hostess made a startling discovery: a foot-long otter pup on the cabin floor. This tiny otter, its eyes still shut, should have been in the wild, snug with its mother. Instead, it was on a flight to Taiwan. As I sat in my seat, pinching my nose and making weird faces to pop my ears, I couldn’t help but wonder how this poor little otter handled the cabin pressure. However, this still wasn’t the most shocking story I encountered. At the Bangkok airport, a tiger cub was drugged and placed in a suitcase among stuffed tiger toys. A haunting incident that lingers in my memory, causing my stomach to churn with every recollection.

The Thai national wasn’t the only one attempting to pass off a live animal as a stuffed toy. An Australian travelling to the United States of America got creative by stuffing live blue-tongued skinks among dinosaur toys, assuming that security wouldn’t differentiate between a bunch of plastic extinct reptiles and a live one. Australia’s exotic wildlife is in demand even in India. In September 2023, the Air Intelligence Unit (AIU) officers of Bengaluru Customs were shocked to find a suitcase containing a deceased baby kangaroo. The incident made headlines in every newspaper in Bengaluru. The Economic Times report quoted how customs officers found an animal resembling a small dog in one of the containers, only to open it and find a baby kangaroo. Sadly, it had died owing to suffocation within the suitcase.

Officers and a rescuer examine a suitcase full of wildlife specimens. Wildlife trade transcends mere criminal activity. There is a widespread misconception that this trade doesn’t affect us all. The Covid-19 pandemic, likely a result of the wildlife trade, offers terrifying proof on the impact on each and every one of us. Photo: Trishala Ashok.

Bagged Transport

Two weeks after the kangaroo incident, I received a call at 5 a.m. from Sharath Babu, an investigative officer and wildlife consultant for State and Central law enforcement, asking me to head to the airport with my camera because a passenger flying from Bangkok had abandoned a suitcase with wildlife contraband. In record time I got myself and my camera equipment ready, desperate to prevent the wild animals from suffocating in the suitcase and dashed to the customs office. I stood outside along with a wildlife rescuer, staring at the suitcase, feeling like a contestant on Joe Rogan’s Fear Factor, anxious about its contents. As soon as we walked in, we were greeted by a nauseating stench, one that is ingrained in my subconscious memory, returning vividly every time I recall this incident.

The rescuer, with decades of experience, cautiously approached the suitcase, heightening the tension in the room. The first basket pulled out from the suitcase contained three dead capuchins. Another basket held juvenile macaques, though their post-mortem state made it difficult to identify the exact species. My heart sank, my gut wrenched, and my fingers began to shake as tears welled up in my eyes when I pressed the record button. In the wild, monkeys forage for food, socialise, groom, play, and rest. They exhibit complex social behaviours and hierarchies. Sadly, in this case, they died in their own filth without access to water or food.

A rescuer carefully placing a ball python back into a cotton bag it was trafficked in. As soon as its bag was opened, it popped its head out, sensing the air with its tongue. This was its first sensation of fresh air since being packed into this tiny bag for its unauthorised trip to Bengaluru. Alongside the reptile was a crumpled paper towel, to absorb the urine and keep the snake warm. Photo: Trishala Ashok.

Another suitcase with two more baskets, contained several neatly tied cotton bags with something moving inside. This could only mean one thing – reptiles! “This basket has a red sticker on it. It must contain something venomous. Let’s open that one later,” Sharath Babu, the investigative officer, said as he pointed to the second basket. As we watched, the rescuer carefully picked up a cotton bag and opened it to reveal a ball python. He then placed the bag in a tray. The python popped its head out, sensing the fresh air with its tongue for the first time since being packed for its unauthorised, all-expenses-paid trip to Bengaluru. Alongside the ball python was a crumpled-up paper towel, to absorb its urine and provide warmth. The remaining 54 bags revealed more ball pythons, all alive but in poor health.

As the rescuer approached the basket containing the venomous snakes, each onlooker took a nervous gulp. What if it was a spitting cobra or a Gaboon viper? The only antivenom available in India is for the ‘big four’ – the spectacled cobra, Russell’s viper, common krait, and saw-scaled viper – so we had to be extra cautious. The first bag contained a dead juvenile king cobra, its vibrant scales dulled in death. “There is no antivenom available for this snake in India. What would they do if they got bitten?” asked Sharath Babu as he examined the lifeless reptile.

A rescuer holding the lifeless body of a juvenile macaque. When wild animals are illegally transported between countries, they suffer cruel conditions. Wildlife trade threatens biodiversity and livelihood, leading to species extinction. Photo: Trishala Ashok.

The Human Pigeons

After investigating each bag and the suitcase thoroughly, the animals were returned to their baskets, and were scheduled to be sent back to Bangkok. “Post-pandemic, the protocol mandates that all exotic wildlife must be sent back to their country of origin to prevent disease outbreaks,” explained Sharath Babu. Considering the foul smell, they were likely carriers of pathogens. Given that the suitcase was unclaimed, tracking down the suspects would be challenging. “There is a human courier service system called ‘kuruvi’ in smugglers’ circles in rural or coastal districts of Tamil Nadu. They hire people from low-income backgrounds, who are willing to take the risk. They are given free stay, travel, and 15,000 INR per trip, as an incentive. If they are caught, they secure bail for the kuruvi. Interrogating a kuruvi suspect is challenging as they are not aware of the full operation; they are simply promised an international trip and money. Kuruvi means pigeon in English, like courier pigeons that carry letters from one place to another; similarly, these people help transport contraband between countries. It may be wildlife this time, but the next time it could be drugs,” he added grimly.

A day later, the incident appeared in almost all leading papers in Bengaluru. While reading headlines about finding live wild animals such as rainforest monkeys and venomous snakes in a metropolitan airport is hair-raising, the question is: Are consumers of exotic pets aware that individuals from local communities are being exploited as ‘human pigeons’ in the illegal trafficking of wildlife by criminal gangs? I pondered this as I recalled Sharath Babu’s revelations about the kuruvi system. How can the mainstream media make the public more aware of the fourth largest crime in the world?

To seek answers, I reached out to Dr. Shekhar Kumar Niraj, former Country Head of Traffic India, a programme division of WWF India and a global office of the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, and former Assistant Management Authority for the western region of India for CITES. He emphasised the importance of awareness. “The media should not wait for a case. To help people understand the implications of this crime, awareness must be consistent. While there are good campaigns by NGOs, they should continuously be promoted in the media along with well-researched topics exposing this trade. These topics should include the cruel conditions in which wild animals are illegally transported between countries, the exploitation of the aviation industry, which puts passengers at risk, how the trade threatens biodiversity and livelihood, leading to species extinction, and how criminal networks operate between countries, etc. These stories must appeal to policymakers and lawmakers, as tackling wildlife crime demands a collaborative effort from diverse stakeholders. The media has the power to do this,” Dr. Niraj said.

Cotton bags with ball pythons. “Post-pandemic, the protocol mandates that all exotic wildlife must be sent back to its country of origin to prevent disease outbreaks,” said Sharath Babu, an investigative officer and wildlife consultant for State and Central law enforcement. Photo: Trishala Ashok.

To seek advice for media reporters covering wildlife crime stories, I contacted Bryan Christy, an American novelist and investigative journalist. He is the founder and former head of the Special Investigations Unit at National Geographic, where he introduced wildlife crime reporting. His innovative investigative storytelling techniques have contributed to the arrest and prosecution of key wildlife traffickers. Additionally, his work has influenced the passage of new laws worldwide and the closure of China’s ivory market, saving tens of thousands of African elephants.

Christy advised, “Too often wildlife crime stories are told as victim-based tales. I would encourage reporters to reframe their stories as villain-based stories. Focus on the people at each stage in a wildlife crime story, the poacher, the middleman, the customs inspectors, the government regulators, the wildlife enforcement authorities, the consumer. Include prosecutors and judges where appropriate. This crime story framework gives the storyteller a very powerful plot. The plot is a rocket ship for information, and a key to delivering the level of information a reader or viewer needs/wants regarding the victim wildlife and its ecosystem. In a sense, reporters have to stop thinking about ‘wildlife’ crime and start thinking crime. The word ‘wildlife’ often diminishes a reporter’s effort in the minds of the public, particularly law makers and regulators necessary for greater protection.

Also, ask yourself ‘What is the problem and what is necessary to make a difference?’, and include all those elements in your story. Too often, wildlife crime stories tell the victim’s story, and the data about extinction or habitat loss, but do not speak to the regulators or laws of commercial and consumer drivers that need to be changed. You should write objectively, as if you were presenting a full argument to a jury and asking them to reach a conclusion.”

A deceased juvenile king cobra Ophiophagus hannah lies on the cotton bag in which it was stuffed. Despite being venomous, king cobras are trafficked for the illegal pet trade as well as use in traditional medicine. Photo: Trishala Ashok.

The horrifying incident I witnessed at the Bengaluru International Airport was a well-planned transnational crime. The smuggler escaped, leaving the suitcase with wildlife contraband unclaimed on the baggage belt. His escape highlights a dark reality: few traffickers are ever caught, and even fewer are prosecuted. Those convicted often secure bail, at half the price of one of those exclusive ball pythons found in the suitcase. The minimal risk and high profits are what allow notorious kingpins of the global black market to evade justice. However, wildlife trade transcends mere criminal activity. There is a widespread misconception that this trade doesn’t affect us all. The Covid-19 pandemic, likely a result of the wildlife trade, offers terrifying proof on the impact on each and every one of us. The public and potential exotic pet owners should be made aware of the grave risks involved in purchasing wild animals,
as they could unknowingly introduce a virus for which there is no vaccine yet.  Media houses, storytellers, reporters and journalists bear the incredible responsibility to bring such issues to the attention of the public and policymakers. Powerful storytelling can inspire people and drive policy change to prevent and end one the world’s most profitable and insidious crimes.

Trishala Ashok A storyteller, conservation filmmaker and science communicator, she aspires to create impactful content that empowers people to drive change in their communities. She is presently working on filmmaking projects on human-wildlife interactions in Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh.


join the conversation