CINCINNATI – U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers recently intercepted illegally-imported dead king cobra snakes hidden in socks and hawksbill sea turtle shells painted white to disguise them.
Officers discovered 631 “scutes,” parts of a turtle’s shell, which had been sanded clean of barnacles and covered in white, water-soluble paint. Wildlife inspectors estimated that the scutes were taken from 29 large, mature turtles between 60 and 65 years-old.
"It's an underground market," said Terry Wilkins, owner of Captive Born Reptiles in Newport, Kentucky. "I mean, it's one of those things where you might walk into a low-rate jewelry store and see a piece of turtle shell laying there, because most folks aren't educated enough to realize you don't want to participate in that market."
The hawksbill turtles are a critically endangered species protected under the Endangered Species Act, and inspectors said it would take decades for the species to recover to the loss to their population that was uncovered in the Cincinnati shipment.
"The impact that it has on the ecosystem and the particular species is atrocious," said Richard Gillespie, Port of Cincinnati director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The king cobra snakes were hidden in baskets with socks and were found dead, but officials said they suspected the snakes had been sent live for breeding purposes and died in transit.
The turtle shells came from the Dominican Republic, Gillespie said, and the cobras were from Asia.
"We often work with the origin country and the destination country," he said. "Sometimes, although the shipments make entry here into the United States in Cincinnati, they could be destined for another country. They could just be simply transiting."
Cincinnati wasn't the final destination for the shipments, but the agency wouldn't comment further on its investigation.