Three press releases surrounding this event are reprinted below, in reverse chronological order.
Smuggled Iguanas Returned Home by Border Force
Twelve critically endangered iguanas seized by Border Force at Heathrow have been returned to their native Bahamas
UK Government Border Force and Home Office – 11 July 2014
The reptiles were discovered in the baggage of Romanian nationals Angla-Alina Bita, and Vitora-Oliva Bucsa on 3 February 2014 by staff carrying out customs checks. The iguanas were each wrapped in an individual sock and had been stuffed into suitcases. Twelve survived their journey but one died in transit.
They were identified as San Salvador rock iguanas, a species so rare that only a few hundred are known to be in existence. As such they are controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Jailed – The women were later sentenced to 12 months in prison for smuggling, after an investigation by the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA). Following the seizure, officers from Border Force’s specialist CITES team worked with the Bahamas High Commission in London to arrange their return to their native islands.
On Wednesday 9 July the iguanas were taken from the City of London Corporation’s Animal Reception Centre at Heathrow to board a British Airways flight to Nassau, accompanied by two Border Force officers, for their journey. They were then transported to a government research station on the island of San Salvador where they will be monitored by experts, with the eventual aim of retuning them to the wild.
Bahamas – Grant Miller, head of the Border Force CITES team, said: “We were in contact with the Bahamas High Commission in London from an early stage and straight away it became clear that getting them back to their natural habitat was going to be really important. Arranging the repatriation of such rare animals is complex and sensitive, but I’m delighted that through our close work with the Bahamian authorities, British Airways, the City of London Corporation and other partners we have succeeded. Not only has Border Force made sure that the criminals responsible for smuggling these animals are behind bars, we’re also proud to have been able to play a part in safeguarding the future of this species.”
Wildlife crime – The Bahamas Minister of The Environment, The Honourable Kenred Dorsett, said: “Wildlife crime is a global problem, which only collectively we can address. This crime plagues animals and plants particularly, like the case of the Bahamian iguanas, species which are extremely rare and from remote places. We thank the government of the UK for their excellent cooperation as they have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the successful repatriation of these animals and we look forward to working with other countries as well as local, regional and international NGOs to address the challenge.”
The iguanas were flown in the cabin of a British Airways flight to Nassau. Pilot Captain Al Matthews said: “Naturally, all of our customers are special, but despite having flown Prime Ministers and members of the Royal Family, these iguanas are by far the most unusual. You don’t expect to share your cabin with incredibly rare reptiles. However, I can confirm all the iguanas were securely stored throughout the flight and had the most comfortable journey possible.”
Endangered – Robbie Marsland, UK Director of International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), said: “With wildlife crime having such a devastating impact on many endangered animals, this is an excellent demonstration of successful enforcement work by Border Force and the NCA. We are pleased that the criminals involved have been brought to justice and that these critically endangered animals have been returned home to live out their lives in their natural habitat. Wildlife belongs in the wild.”
Border Force is responsible for frontline detection and seizure duties on the illegal trade in endangered animals and plants which is covered by the CITES convention. The convention covers more than 35,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens or as derivatives.
Stuffed in Socks: 13 Iguanas Smuggled into UK in a Suitcase
Border Agency Found 13 ‘Critically Endangered’ San Salvador Rock Iguanas Stuffed into a Suitcase for Eight-Hour Flight, with 12 Surviving
The Telegraph – 3 Apr 2014
By Keith Perry
Two “highly-intelligent, well-travelled young women” caught smuggling 13 critically-endangered iguanas, with a potential black market value of £260,000, were each jailed for 12 months.
The Romanian degree students were caught at Heathrow Airport after stepping off a BA fight from The Bahamas with the San Salvador iguanas, one of which had died, stuffed inside socks and wrapped in a blue towel in their suitcase. Mechanical engineering student Angla-Alina Bita, 26, who was working as an au pair in Switzerland, and finance student Vitora-Oliva Bucsa, 24, both pleaded guilty to the unlawful importation of the animals on February 3 at Terminal Five.
They were caught after their nine-day trip, which had been financed by a wealthy Swiss gentleman identified only as ‘Thomas’, before they could catch their onward flight to Dusseldorf, Germany, where the animals were to be collected. The animals are unique to The Bahamas, where laws have been passed to prevent their export and it is believed the species now only amounts to a few hundred.
Prosecutor Pamela Reiss told Isleworth Crown Court the women arrived in the early hours from Nassau, claiming they had spent an innocent holiday in the Caribbean, which they had financed themselves. All their clothes had been stuffed into one suitcase and Border Agency officers checked the second one they had.
“In the other suitcase the 13 iguanas, one of which was dead, were found. Each had been wrapped inside a sock and then wrapped in a blue towel. They had been in the hold in the suitcase during the eight-hour flight. They come from a hot country and were in the cold hold all that time and must have suffered. Bita said she did not know what they were and was given them by a man called ‘Robert’ in a beach bar and was not paid.”
It is unknown what the final destination was for the reptiles, but Miss Reiss added: “They are valued at £10,000 each and that’s a minimum, they could be sold illegally for up to £20,000 each.” It is difficult to place an accurate figure on the value because the trade is cloaked in secrecy, but the prosecutor added: “Maybe wealthy people keep them as status symbols because they are endangered.”
The court heard that Bita lied when quizzed and Bucsa said nothing, but now both women claim ‘Thomas’ financed the whole trip and arranged for them to carry the iguanas. Their lawyer Miss Brinder Soora said: “They recognise the particularly devastating effect their actions have had and it is fortunate only one iguana passed away. These two defendants were naive in their actions and they did not know the iguanas were of such value and rarity.”
Judge Phillip Matthews told the first-time offenders, who have been locked up in HMP Holloway since their arrest: “You are two highly-intelligent, well travelled young women who chose to act in the way you did free of pressure. There is a market for such creatures and for as long as people such as yourselves perpetrate the facility for them to be smuggled out of the Bahamas, that trade will continue.”
Grant Miller from the Border Force’s endangered species team said: “This particular species of iguana is incredibly rare – only a few hundred are believed to be left in existence – so this was a remarkable and very important seizure. Given the circumstances we found them in, it seems incredible that all but one survived such a long flight.”
The animals were dehydrated and placed into the care of a specialist vet where they remain. Mr Miller said they are working with experts to find the best way to protect and safeguard the endangered creatures longer term.
13 Rare Iguanas Cruelly Stuffed into Socks by Smugglers are Seized by Customs Officers at Heathrow
The Daily Mail – 4 February 2014
By Martin Robinson
* Two Romanians arrived from Bahamas and were arrested by border police
* The iguanas were found stuffed in a suitcase and one of the 13 had died
* Species is ‘critically endangered’ and worth £150 each on black market
Thirteen ‘incredibly rare’ iguanas stuffed into socks by smugglers have been seized by customs officials at Heathrow Airport. The endangered lizards were found in a suitcase at Terminal Five of the London airport when officers stopped two Romanian women who had arrived from the Bahamas. They were carrying 13 San Salvador rock iguanas each wrapped in a sock but sadly only 12 survived the journey from the Caribbean.
The species is considered ‘critically endangered’ and so rare they can cost around £150 each on the black market. The two travellers were due to take the reptiles – which are native to The Bahamas and classed as being under threat of extinction – on to Dusseldorf in Germany.
Grant Miller, from the Border Force’s endangered species team said: “This particular species of iguana is incredibly rare – only a few hundred are believed to be left in existence – so this was a remarkable and very important seizure. Given the circumstances we found them in it seems incredible that all but one survived such a long flight. The surviving animals were dehydrated and are now under the supervision of a specialist vet. We are also working with experts to find the best way to protect and safeguard these endangered creatures longer term.”
The two women, aged 24 and 26, were arrested on suspicion of importation offenses.
San Salvador iguanas grow up to around 20 cm (8 inches) when mature, with the male slightly larger than the female. The iguanas have become increasingly endangered since The Bahamas were first colonized in the 16th century from non-native predators including cats and dogs and the loss of the natural habitats which they live in. They are now confined to just a handful of ‘cays’, the small sandy islands which make up The Bahamas. Their diet is almost exclusively made up of a plants and fruit from species native to the island, as well as some insect larvae and slugs and crabs, as they live close to the water.
The most comprehensive study, in the late 1990s, put their numbers at between 426 and 639 and conservationists fear numbers have fallen since then.
The Bahamas government forbids all exports, and attempts have been made at a captive breeding program to arrest their decline.