An exotic animal salesman tried to board a flight from Argentina to Europe with almost 250 undeclared poisonous snakes and endangered reptiles in his baggage, each meticulously labeled with its Latin name.
Czech citizen Karel Abelovsky, 51, was detained after police spotted wriggling reptiles in the X-ray scanner at Buenos Aires' international airport and made him open the checked baggage. They found 247 exotic and endangered species in all, packed inside plastic containers, bags, and even socks.
Argentine authorities believe the Czech was a courier for a criminal organization that smuggles exotic species whose exports are banned, a judicial source told The Associated Press. Abelovsky only arrived in Argentina days earlier and wouldn't have had time to gather all the animals himself, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the judge hasn't finished his investigation.
Judge Marcelo Aguinsky believes the boa constrictors, poisonous pit vipers and coral snakes, lizards and spiders could have escaped the cloth suitcase in the unpressurized cargo hold of the Dec. 7 Iberia flight to Madrid, and perhaps attacked people there or at his final destination in Prague, where antidotes for South American snakes aren't common, the source added.
Abelovsky was released on about $2,500 bail after surrendering his passport and has refused to talk even though he faces up to 10 years in prison.
Abelovsky runs a Czech website that offers reptiles for sale, including South American pit vipers similar to those found in his luggage. A woman who answered the contact number given on the site said she was his wife but did not give her name and said only that her husband was "ordinary."
Czech authorities have no information about Abelovsky, said Martina Kankova, spokeswoman for Czech customs administration. She said authorities have broken up several smuggling rings in recent years. Czech television has reported that in 2010, customs officials detained 55 smugglers with dozens of exotic animals.
"We strictly condemn any illegal activity including the smuggling of animals, but from our point of view and according to our law he is not guilty at this moment unless the court will say otherwise," Czech Foreign Ministry Spokesman Karel Srol told the AP on Wednesday. "It is in the hands of our embassy in Buenos Aires."
Most of the animals and bugs are being held under quarantine at the Buenos Aires Zoo, while some of the venomous snakes were sent to Argentina's national health institute, which has a high-security department where scientists develop antidotes using venom from snakes.
The species include lizards native to Mexico and snakes, spiders, snails and other species from northern Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Some were already dead in the suitcase, while others have succumbed to stress since then. Many were quite weak on arrival at the zoo, but most are still alive.
Wild snakes and reptiles are known to carry infectious diseases and so must be kept apart from the public and other animals, said Miguel Rivolta, the lead zoo veterinarian.
"It's difficult to find the right kind of bugs they eat, and to replicate as much as possible their environment in the wild," Rivolta said. "The best thing that can happen to these animals is that they liberate them as soon as possible in their natural habitat."
Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires and Karel Janicek in the Czech Republic contributed to this story. Follow Michael Warren on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mwarrenap
(This version CORRECTS the name of the correspondent in the contributor line to Janicek. )