A man is facing charges after allegedly smuggling three live king cobras into the United States.
If you’re afraid of snakes, you might want to skip this story.
Rodrigo Franco, 34, faces up to 20 years in prison for allegedly receiving three illegally imported snakes at his California address. According to authorities, the snakes were hidden inside a potato chip can, which was then packed into a parcel and shipped from Hong Kong via the United States Postal Service.
The package also contained three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles. Franco faces charges for violating the Endangered Species Act and for falsifying records, according to a press release issued by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Authorities say that each snake was approximately two feet long.
Agents removed the highly venomous snakes from the package, then arranged for a controlled delivery of the soft-shelled turtles; when Franco accepted the package, agents executed a search warrant.
Franco’s residence allegedly contained a number of exotic and endangered animals, including a live Morelet’s crocodile, alligator snapping turtles, a common snapping turtle, and five diamondback terrapins—all of which are protected species.
We’ll admit that the idea of three live cobras packed into a potato chip can is just a little bit funny, as the whole “snakes in a can” gag is a classic prank. Unfortunately, there’s not much humor in this story; during questioning, Franco allegedly admitted that he had illegally imported 20 king cobras in two prior shipments, but that those snakes had died in transit.
The king cobra is listed as a vulnerable animal on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, indicating that the snakes are at high risk of extinction in the wild. The IUCN notes that habit loss and exploitation have limited the snake’s range.
Found in India and Southeast Asia, the king cobra has a powerful neurotoxic venom that can affect a human victim’s central nervous system in minutes, causing severe pain, vertigo, and eventually paralysis. The venom can cause death within 30 minutes if left untreated.
But while they’re extraordinarily dangerous and occasionally aggressive, king cobras play an important role in the food chain of their native habitats, feeding on other venomous snakes as well as rodents, birds, and lizards.
Given the other animals allegedly found in Franco’s apartment, the animals may have been imported as pets.
That is, of course, no excuse—the illegal importation of protected species can have disastrous effects on the environment.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), the illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth $19 billion per year. Many smugglers see it as a low-risk, lucrative business since the risks are low when compared with other crimes.
“Perhaps the most obvious problem associated with wildlife trade is that it can cause overexploitation to the point where the survival of a species hangs in the balance,” the WWF writes on its website.
“Historically, such overexploitation has caused extinctions or severely threatened species and, as human populations have expanded, demand for wildlife has only increased.”