A king cobra is not what you expect to find when you open a canister of potato chips.
Yet that’s exactly what United States Customs and Border Protection officials discovered on March 2 when they inspected a package sent from Hong Kong to California, according to a news release by the US Attorney’s Office of the Central District of California.
Specifically, they found three live, highly venomous king cobras hidden in the cans. The snakes were young, each about two feet long. Adult king cobras can grow to more than 18 feet long. Their venom can kill a human within 30 minutes and an elephant within hours.
The package also held three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles.
Agents from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) arrested Rodrigo Franco, 34, of Monterey Park, California, on July 21 on charges of federal smuggling.
According to court documents described by NPR, Customs officials initially suspected the package from Hong Kong might contain drugs. They called the USFWS when they spotted movement. A special agent on that team recognised the Hong Kong address and told them not to open the containers until they were taken to a controlled environment.
It turns out that was a good call.
According to the Department of Justice press release, officials removed the snakes from the package because of the danger they posed, but allowed the US Postal Inspection Service to deliver the turtles to Franco.
They then executed a search warrant in Franco’s house, and found a number of other protected species in a child’s bedroom, including a baby Morelet’s crocodile, alligator snapping turtles, and diamond back terrapins.
That same day, Franco allegedly sent a package to Hong Kong containing six protected turtles, including desert box turtles, three-toed box turtles, and ornate box turtles. The USFWS intercepted that shipment as well.
Franco had allegedly received at least 20 other king cobras in previous shipments. He told authorities that they had died in transit, though phone records also showed him discussing how to feed the snakes. There were also messages discussing delivery of five snakes to another contact in the US.
The illegal wildlife trade is one of the largest criminal enterprises on the planet, ranked alongside the drug trade, human trafficking, and arms dealing in terms of illegal profits.
In some parts of the world, such animals are consumed as delicacies or medicine; in others, they are bought and sold as pets.
If convicted, Franco faces up to 20 years in prison.