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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Animal Trafficking Gets Customs' Goat

Moscow is fast becoming a world center for endangered species, customs and Environment Ministry officials said Thursday following the latest in a deluge of animal trafficking arrests in Moscow this year.

"If it doesn't have a trunk or antlers, it's come, or at least tried to come through our airports lately," said Yelena Guskova, a spokeswoman for the State Customs Committee, which Monday seized 2,200 live contraband turtles at Chkalovskaya Air Force Base. The turtles had been flown in from Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

That seizure came just days after the Environment Ministry seized 46 rare African python skins at Sheremetyevo from the luggage of a Ukrainian woman who had flown in from Kiev.

Sheremetyevo has seen a series of increasingly bizarre incidents involving rare animal cargoes in recent months. In February alone, Environment Ministry and customs officials made three large-scale seizures of monkeys, one involving 49 macaques from Madagascar. Also on Feb. 20, Environment Ministry officials seized 30 live parrots following a flight in from Brazil.

"We've seized lizards, birds, monkeys, dogs, snakes and even fish," said Yevgeny Korochkin, a spokesman for the Environment Ministry. "We're reaching a level of commerce here that is extremely dangerous to certain rare species."

The problem, according to Guskova, is that although customs control is still strict, illicit animal trade is relatively unchecked within Russia's borders.

"Russia is an excellent market for animal dealers, because there are people here with disposable incomes and there are clearly defined places to buy and sell rare animals," she said.

Guskova said that traders bringing in turtles from Central Asia can sell them as pets -- and sometimes as food -- for about $1.50 per turtle. Other animals, like monkeys and parrots, can command hundreds and even thousands of dollars, while the cost of capturing them in their native countries and transporting them is relatively low.

In Moscow, the best-known open market for rare animals is the Ptitchy Rynok, or Bird Market, near Taganskaya Ploshchad, where Gila monsters and Japanese frost monkeys are sold openly alongside puppies and kittens.

"The vast majority of the animals and animal skins that get through customs are sold on the Ptitchy Rynok," said Guskova. "It is the center of a trade that is becoming increasingly well-organized in the former Soviet states."

Korochkin said that the turtles and the python skins demonstrated the sophistication of the illegal animal market in the CIS.

"The python skins were African, but they had been dried and treated in Ukraine, which means that there is a business in place already where such technical processes are handled," he said. "As for the turtles, transporting 2,000 at a time is no small task. It takes organization."