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Illegal snakes, lizards likely smuggled in via planes, packages

The 14 prohibited reptiles turned in recently are believed to be only the tip of the iceberg, officials say

By Dan Nakaso

LAST UPDATED: 2:35 a.m. HST, Jul 26, 2011

The 14 reptiles turned over to authorities since June 29 have revealed an appetite in Hawaii for illegal, black-market snakes and lizards, which state officials say are likely sneaked in by shipping containers, through package delivery services and even carried by smugglers into airline passenger cabins.

Many snakes illegally brought to the islands were probably bought as juveniles on the mainland and strapped to passengers and smuggled aboard planes, Glenn Sakamoto, the state Department of Agriculture's compliance section supervisor, told the Star-Advertiser this month while showing off 12 confiscated reptiles.


Since June 29, state agriculture officials and the Honolulu Police Department’s CrimeStoppers program have received:

» Two ball pythons.
» Two boa constrictors.
» Two albino Burmese pythons.
» Three bearded dragons.
» One blue-tongued skink.
» One tegu lizard.
» One iguana.
» Two leopard geckos.

To report illegal animals:
» Call one of the following: state Department of Agriculture office, Honolulu Zoo, Panaewa Zoo on Hawaii island or any Humane Society. No questions asked and no fines assessed.
» Anyone with information on illegal animals should call the toll-free PEST HOTLINE at 643-PEST (7378) or CrimeStoppers.


The maximum penalty under state law for possessing and/or transporting illegal animals is a Class C felony, punishable by a $200,000 fine and up to three years in prison.

Keevin Minami, land vertebrate specialist for the Agriculture Department, said this month that funding cuts to the state's agriculture inspection program also have made slipping prohibited snakes and lizards through shipping service packages easier.

Out of 61 state inspector positions, 24 to 26 remain unfilled, Minami said.

The U.S. Postal Service told the Star-Advertiser that its employees have found only one illegal reptile in the last 15 years, but animal control officials said the number of reptiles illegally mailed to Hawaii is certainly much higher.

Christy Martin, coordinator for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, a consortium of government and nongovernmental agencies, said the postal service does not routinely X-ray packages, and cannot open a package for inspection unless there is probable cause for some offense.

Snakes and other reptiles are illegal in Hawaii because of the islands' fragile ecosystem, home to the most endangered and threatened species on the planet.

"The threat from the introduction of invasive species to the state is a distinct threat to a variety of native species, birds, insects, a number of snails and many other things that are important to Hawaii's ecosystem and to Hawaiian culture," said George Phocus, resident agent-in-charge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu. "These invasive species will just further damage these elements of Hawaii and its culture."

On the human end, Phocus said, "most people like to blame outsiders, but that's not the case. There are just as many locals involved in the black market. There's no single type of person, no stereotypical reptile keeper or invasive species keeper. They're young and old, local and outsider."

State agriculture officials typically get only one illegal animal every two or three months, Sakamoto said.

But since June 29, agriculture officials and the Honolulu Police Department's CrimeStoppers program have received an impressive menagerie of coldblooded animals: two ball pythons, two boa constrictors, two albino Burmese pythons, three bearded dragons, a blue-tongued skink, a tegu lizard, an iguana and two leopard geckos.

All but one animal were turned in under the state's amnesty program, which provides immunity from prosecution for possessing an illegal reptile.

State law categorizes possessing and/or transporting illegal animals as a Class C felony, punishable with a $200,000 fine and up to three years in prison.

Martin said she believes many of the reptiles were turned in recently because of publicity of this month's conviction of a Florida couple whose 2-year-old girl was killed by the couple's pet Burmese python.

A jury took less than two hours to find Jaren Hare and her boyfriend, Charles Darnel, guilty of third-degree murder, manslaughter and child abuse. The snake strangled Hare's daughter, Shaianna, in her crib in 2009.

A report by the Departments of Agriculture and Land and Natural Resources determined as credible 236 snake reports across the islands to a pest hot line from 1990 to 2000.

Of the 236 reports, 100 snakes were discovered, and 22 of those were believed to have arrived accidentally through shipments or other forms of transportation, Martin said.

But Martin said she believes the 100 snakes that were discovered represent a much larger reality.

"It's more like the tip of the iceberg," she said.

Even if wild reptiles can't find a mate in Hawaii, several species can produce genetically diverse offspring.

"They don't even need to meet a male," Martin said.

Her group is working to prevent an invasion similar to that of the brown tree snake that began overrunning Guam in the early 1950s and has resulted in "environmental catastrophe."

"The brown tree snake very quickly ate most birds in urban areas and the forest," Martin said. "You don't see most birds on Guam, and as a result there are a lot more insects, which affects agriculture."

Some of the reptiles turned in since June "are capable of causing the same sort of ecosystem damage here," she said, "and we have no way to control it."

People who traffic in Hawaii's black-market reptile industry might be fascinated by the various species, Martin said.

"They like the looks of them, they like the characteristics of them and think they're cool," Martin said. "They just don't understand that if you release them you're making decisions for everybody."

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