Customs officers stop animal traffickers: 74 endangered chameleons found in suitcase with black market value at around EUR 37,000 Perpetrators held at Vienna Airport

On 20 January 2021, following a risk analysis, customs officers and investigators at Vienna Airport undertook a check on a traveller who had flown from Tanzania to Vienna via the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa. The 56-year-old man, who was just about to leave the baggage area via the green channel, was intercepted by an experienced official. As part of the check on the traveller, his suitcase was X-rayed; having aroused suspicions, the case was then opened and subjected to a thorough search.

It quickly emerged that the suitcase contained living creatures which, while they would have been well camouflaged in a natural environment, ultimately did not outwit the X-ray machine; officers discovered several hiding places, such as socks and plastic boxes, in which 74 endangered chameleons had been smuggled.

The boxes were then immediately transported to Schönbrunn Zoo by customs investigators, and there they were opened by reptile experts at the Zoo. Of the 74 creatures, two were already dead and had evidently perished during transportation from Tanzania to Austria. The surviving chameleons were examined and looked after at Schönbrunn Zoo. They consisted of both young animals, just a week old, and adult chameleons. According to the Zoo's experts, they originate from the Usambara Mountains, a region of Tanzania which at present has abundant rainfall and cool temperatures. The reptiles are now housed in terraria which fulfil their specific needs, including high levels of ground moisture and an airy and cool environment.

Investigations revealed that the animals had been intended for the Czech market and were to be sold on there. Their black market value would have been around EUR 37,000. According to Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, "The vital work undertaken by customs also regularly assists in ending the suffering of animals and putting a stop to unscrupulous wildlife traffickers. In this way, the Customs Administration not only ensures the protection of Austrian businesses and consumers, but it makes an indispensable contribution to animal welfare and the preservation of endangered species too."

The perpetrator now faces administrative penalty proceedings with an anticipated fine of EUR 6,000. The trafficker has also forfeited his claim on the animals and, on top of losing his purchase and travel costs, his illegal animal smuggling activities are likely to cost him dear.