Authorities at Thailand's international airport arrested a first-class passenger Friday whose suitcases were filled with baby leopards, panthers, a bear and monkeys. The animals had been drugged and were headed for Dubai.
The man, a 36-year-old United Arab Emirates citizen, was waiting to check-in for his flight at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport when he was apprehended by undercover anti-trafficking officers, who had been monitoring him since his black market purchase of the rare and endangered animals, according to the FREELAND Foundation, an anti-trafficking group based in Thailand.
When authorities opened the suitcases, the animals yawned, said Steven Galster, director of FREELAND, who was present during the bust. There were two leopards, two panthers, an Asiatic black bear and two macaque monkeys - all about the size of puppies.
"It looked like they had sedated the animals and had them in flat cages so they couldn't move around much," Galster said. Some of the animals were placed inside canisters with air holes.
Authorities believe the man was part of a trafficking network and were searching for suspected accomplices.
"It was a very sophisticated smuggling operation. We've never seen one like this before," Galster said. "The guy had a virtual zoo in his suitcases."
Thailand is a hub for illegal wildlife trafficking, but authorities typically find rare turtles, tortoises, snakes and lizards that feed demand in China and Vietnam. Finding such an array of live mammals is unusual.
"We haven't seen this mixture (of animals) before," Galster said. "It's amazing. We were really surprised."
In Thailand, leopards and panthers fetch roughly $5,000 a piece on the black market, but their value in Dubai was presumably higher, Galster said. It was not known if the animals were destined to be resold or kept as exotic pets, a practice popular in the Middle East.