A man tried to board a plane in Argentina with almost 250 poisonous snakes and endangered reptiles in his baggage, each meticulously labeled with its Latin name.
Czech citizen Karel Abelovsky, 51, was en route to Spain when airport officials made him open his baggage at Buenos Aires' international airport after police spotted the reptiles in the X-ray scanner. They found 247 exotic and endangered species in all, packed inside plastic containers, bags, and even socks.
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 on Tuesday. Authorities said Abelovsky only arrived in Argentina days earlier and wouldn't have had time to gather all the animals.
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 cabin 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 is refusing to talk even though he faces up to 10 years in prison.
Abelovsky runs a Czech website that offers reptiles for sale. 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 traced several people or broken rings of smugglers of various exotic animals in recent years, including turtles and parrots.
Czech television reported earlier this year that in 2010, customs officials in the country detained 55 smugglers with dozens of exotic animals.
Most of the animals and bugs found on Tuesday 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 Janacek in the Czech Republic contributed to this story.