Last April, airport authorities became suspicious of a traveler arriving to LAX from Vietnam after noticing bird droppings on his socks and feathers peeking from the cuffs of his pants. A closer inspection of the man, Sony Dong, revealed fourteen Asian songbirds strapped to his legs, valued at around $1000 each on the black market. Over fifty more birds were found when Dong's residence was searched, and police would later arrest the smuggling operation's ringleader. But after pleading guilty in court, the two men have been sentenced to jail for their role in the illegal wildlife trade--although their sentences may be brief enough to ruffle a few feathers.According to The Examiner, custom officials had had their eye on Dong prior to his most recent attempt to smuggle birds in his pants. A year prior, a piece of unclaimed luggage belonging to Dong was found containing 13 living exotic birds, and five that had died. So, when they learned the man was scheduled to fly to Vietnam last April, they were sure to be waiting for him upon his arrival. Searching his home, authorities found 51 more illegal birds
Investigators discovered the animal smuggling was being funded by another California man, Duc Le, the operation's ringleader. The two men later pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to illegally import wildlife.
The smuggled birds, which were quarantined and later moved to zoos and aviaries, included several species considered "injurious" according to the LA Times. All told, on the black-market the birds could have fetched over $65,000.
Despite the evidently lucrative market for Asian songbirds in the US, the sentence handed down to the two men seems hardly a deterrent for other would-be animal smugglers. Dong was sentenced to serve a mere four months in jail and ordered to pay just $4,000. The punishment for Le was only slightly more severe for his role as financier: a six month sentence with a fine of $25,000.
While wildlife smugglers make bizarre attempts to import exotic animals to be sold on the black market, customs officials can only do so much to thwart them. The fact that Dong was caught trying to smuggle 14 birds back from Vietnam but had 51 others already at home would suggest he made multiple successful trips before finally being nabbed.
It may be necessary then to make the illegal wildlife trade less appealing with harsher sentences for those caught in the act, as well as for anyone attempting to purchase such animals. Only then, perhaps, will the lives of creatures killed or mistreated by smuggling operations be valued appropriately.