Dead king cobras were found in socks and concealed within baskets (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
Scutes covered in paint (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
Seat turtle scuts (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)
CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) -
Officials in Cincinnati seized shipment containers that were filled with endangered hawksbill sea turtle shells and dead king cobra snakes, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Officers discovered two separate shipments containing a total of 631 sea turtle scutes, which are part of a turtle’s shell, according to CBP. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) inspectors estimate that the scutes were the remains of at least 29 large, mature sea turtles between 60 to 75 years old.
Authorities say the smugglers had sanded the scutes clean of barnacles and covered them with a white, water-soluble paint in an attempt to disguise their identity.
Hawksbill sea turtles are hunted for their beautifully colored shells composed of bony plates called scutes, which are prized for their use in jewelry, hair ornaments, guitar picks, and other decorative purposes. They are considered critically endangered and are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
In a separate shipment, dead king cobras were found wrapped in socks and concealed within baskets in an attempt to evade detection by law enforcement, according to CBP.
Officials say even though the snakes were dead upon arrival into the United States, it is suspected they were sent live for breeding purposes and perished in transit.
"These were actually four separate shipments that came in a little over a month ago,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Cincinnati Port Director Richard Gillespie. “It was two shipments of the Hawksbill sea turtles, one shipment with the king cobras and then another shipment came in as ostrich skins, which are not allowed to be imported in that nature.”
Federal authorities declined the say where the shipments were heading, but said they were likely just passing through Cincinnati. They were discovered at an express consignment facility at CVG.
"The turtle scutes originated out of the Dominican Republic. The king cobra originated out of Asia,” Gillespie told FOX19 NOW.
The pieces of the turtle shells were harvested form at least 29 hawksbill sea turtles, according to officials. They’re classified as “critically endangered.”
"They're extremely endangered," said Tim Harrison, director of Outreach for Animals. "People want them. They want to make these guitar picks. They want to make jewelry out of them. They're worth a lot of money.”
Harrison runs Outreach for Animals which is a group that advocates for proper behavior with wildlife.
"This is a very large confiscation that they did,” Harrison said.
As for the snakes, customs officers say they were likely sent alive for breeding, but died in transit.
"It's a $30.5 billion a year industry just selling dangerous wild and exotic animals, second only to drugs,” Harrison explained to FOX19 NOW on Friday.
All of the shipments were found over the course of a week. According to Gillespie, agents sort through up to 200,000 shipments at a time each and every day searching for items not permitted to cross borders.
"It's a never-ending process,” he said.
The shipments containing the protected and endangered wildlife products were turned over to FWS wildlife inspectors.