Smuggling – From Songbirds to Human Eyeballs

It’s amazing what you stumble across on the internet. While doing research on smuggling for my current novel, I found a blatant request for advice on how to smuggle weed through customs – “Its cost in my home country is just ridiculous so I want to bring some back with me from holiday,” the post whinged. I did wonder if this was just a clever ploy by an enthusiastic customs official, but putting to one side the author’s authenticity, the answers he got were interesting.

The most straight forward response was: “Don’t bother – just grow your own when you get back,” with a link to a website selling suitable seed. Others offered more practical smuggling advice, which I won’t repeat here for fear of having the authorities on my tail for aiding an illicit trade in drugs.  It was amazing to realise, though, just how open some people are prepared to be about their smuggling. But then, I never cease to be astonished at what amateur smugglers attempt to do.


Not surprisingly, the most popular items to smuggle vary depending on which country they’re being taken into.  France, for instance, is a popular destination for meat from exotic wildlife like antelope and monkey, which then appears on the menus of select Parisian restaurants.  Many of them come from endangered species, which I suppose is what makes them rarer, therefore more expensive to obtain, and consequently more attractive to smugglers.

 A few years ago, it was estimated that five tonnes of such banned meat pass illegally through the main Paris airport every week.  In 2008, a selection of passengers from 29 flights into Paris from Africa were searched, and of the 134 people stopped, a staggering 83 of them (that’s nearly two-thirds!) were found to be carrying livestock or fish.  One problem customs officials had, though, was to identify what the meat was because it wasn’t always obvious from the carcasses. Their solution was for scientists to boil the remains until the bones could be removed – reassembling the skeletons then allowed them to decide which animal it had once been. Clever thinking.

Many animals come through customs alive, however. Or at least, they were alive when the smuggler boarded the plane. And they fetch good prices – a large specimen of an Asian Dragon fish, for instance, can fetch $20,000.  No wonder, then, that there’s profitable trade in endangered species.

Smuggling live animals, though, is never easy, and there are often giveaway signs. A man smuggling live songbirds from Vietnam, for instance, was caught when customs agent’s suspicions were aroused by the amount of bird droppings on his shoes.  When the passenger was searched, fourteen birds were found swaddled in cloth inside his trousers.  Unfortunately, 5 of them had died.

There’s also a recorded case of a woman flying from Singapore to Melbourne who was stopped at customs when officials heard what they described as “flipping” noises coming from her skirt. When she was searched, fifteen water-filled plastic bags were found nestled in a multi-pocketed apron hidden beneath her clothes. All full, of-course, with tropical fish.

Other smuggling exploits, though, are much weirder. Earlier this year, the Daily Mail reported a survey that had made on the oddest things smuggled through customs. In the UK, they wrote, customs officials at Stansted airport once found ten human eyeballs floating in a jam jar secreted in one passenger’s luggage. It was never reported what they were wanted for.

Then, retuning to the edible delicacies theme, they also mentioned a case from 2012 when 420lbs of cows’ brains were confiscated on their way into Cairo. Although cow brains can be bought in Sudan for under a dollar a pound, in Egypt they fetch six times that.  “Yuk. Just the thought makes me feel queasy,” is all I can say. And, yes, they are delicacies to eat in that part of the world. I write this while eating lunch; suddenly I don’t feel like finishing my paté sandwich.

Sign trip. Illustration of a group of suitcases and a plane tick

One of the more ghoulish smuggling attempts has to be the one made by Gitta Jarant, who brought her dead husband through Berlin customs in a wheelchair.  “He’s just sleeping,” she explained, but further investigation found he’d been dead for twelve hours, and she was charged with contravening laws on the shipment of dead bodies. Fancy having the seat next to that pair. Perhaps she simply didn’t want to waste a non-refundable plane ticket.

Personally, I would never have the nerve to smuggle anything through an airport [Mr Customs official: please take note!]. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy writing fiction – I can do anything I fancy through my characters without the risk of getting caught.  Others, though, seem continually intent on foolish attempts to bring all sorts of weird contraband into the country.  In my novel Eavesdrop, the smugglers only deal with the more traditional diamonds and cigarettes, but perhaps I should have embraced some of this weirdness.  Maybe a lion’s head or a baboon’s bottom might have been more realistic.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever heard of being smuggled?  Can you do better than cow’s brains and human eyeballs?

[with acknowledgment to for their fascinating article on this subject, from which many of the above facts were gleaned].




Coming soon: Eavesdrop by Ian Coates.

Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East assassins?

 Published by Bad Day Books, and imprint of Assent Publishing.


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