The Leather Underground

Earlier this week, 23 exotic reptiles were stolen from the Australian Reptile Park in Somersby (about an hour south of Sydney).  Responding to a tripped alarm at the park around 11 PM, zookeepers found several heavy doors and windows smashed in what appeared to be a precise, professionally executed heist.  The thieves snatched rare geckos, snakes, skinks, an iguana, a tortoise, and two American alligator hatchlings

The stolen animals are likely bound for the black market, somewhat ironic given that it comes just months after New South Wales’s environment minister overturned a ban on reptile sales through pet shops — a move specifically designed to curb the illegal trade.

None of the 23 reptiles taken are considered dangerous.  However, in interviews with local media, zoo curator Liz Vella expressed concern that the stolen reptiles would be vulnerable without the specially tailored diets and habitats provided by the park.

The audacious theft is the latest reminder of the unquenchable market for rare wildlife.  Some exotic species can fetch between $5,000 – 10,000 and Komodo dragons, can be worth as much as $30,000.  Much of the international trade runs through Southeast Asia, where the animals’ glossy skin becomes clothing and purses.  Private collectors often run breeding rings and underground trading circles.  In parts of rural China, alligator organs are consumed as a ‘cure’ for everything from colds to cancer.

Although the United States boasts some 4.7 million reptile owning households and 13.9 million reptiles as pets, much of the illegal trade circumvents its borders.  A 2011 report prepared for the White House found little evidence to suggest widespread reptile smuggling in to or out of the U.S. outside of a few high-profile cases.  By contrast, this kind of wildlife theft is becoming a depressingly regular occurrence in Australia and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim.

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