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NZ Press: Alleged smuggler gave chameleons to enthusiasts

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Posted by W von Papinešu on March 13, 2003 at 20:55:48:

NEW ZEALAND HERALD () 14 March 03 Alleged smuggler gave chameleons to enthusiasts (Paula Oliver)
A Czech man accused of illegally smuggling chameleons into the country is said to have given the tiny creatures to local reptile enthusiasts he met during his visit.
The 35-year-old man, who has interim name suppression, allegedly carried seven baby veiled chameleons through Auckland International Airport on Sunday.
His movements were closely monitored by a special investigation group, which included the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Customs and police.
Investigators pounced on the man as he and a friend boarded the Lynx ferry in Wellington on Wednesday, but he did not have the creatures with him.
They were instead seized in New Plymouth, after the man apparently gave them away to two people.
Police do not intend to charge either of the people, and say they are satisfied the chameleons were a gift.
One of the people, a reptile enthusiast, would not comment when contacted yesterday.
The Czech man yesterday used an interpreter when he appeared in the Wellington District Court facing charges of trade in threatened species, knowingly having unauthorised goods in his possession and knowingly importing a new organism.
He is a university lecturer with a special interest in chameleons.
"He's never been in a situation like this before, and he's extremely upset," defence lawyer Brett Crowley told the court.
It is understood the man was in the country for a short stay and would have departed by the end of the month.
He had a limited amount of cash in various denominations.
Judge David Carruthers granted the man bail, but ordered that he hand in his two passports, both of which were legal.
He was also told not to associate with the people who had received the chameleons.
The tiny creatures are now being kept in a secure quarantine facility in Auckland.
MAF senior investigator Craig Hughes said it was important to keep them isolated because they could harbour a virus.
"We don't want new organisms coming into the country undetected, so we're happy that we've grabbed them all."
He said the chameleons were considered to be a threatened species, but not endangered.
The veiled chameleon is kept as a pet in some countries, but it was New Zealand's choice to keep it out of the country, a MAF spokesman said.
Four were found in Hawaii last year, prompting officials there to comment on the threat the creatures posed to local birds and insects.
If the Czech man is found guilty he faces a maximum sentence under the Biosecurity Act of five years' imprisonment or a $100,000 fine. Under the Trading in Endangered Species Act the maximum penalty is three years' jail or a $50,000 fine.
Under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act his penalty could be three months in prison or a $500,000 fine.
The seven baby chameleons are chameleo calyptratus species, or veiled chameleons.
* Male veiled chameleons can grow to a length of up to 24 inches, and can live in a diverse range of conditions.
* It is illegal to import them into NZ without Environmental Risk Management Authority approval .
Vital statistics
The species originate from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and are known for their large cranial fins.
They change colour to suit their environment, and are known to be an aggressive type of chameleon.
In the United States they are popular pets, and can be bought from stores or through mail order for between $137 and $550, depending on their size.
Internationally, there is concern over the future of many endangered chameleon species, and efforts are being made to crack down on illegal trading.
The veiled species is not among the chameleons considered to be under most threat.
Male veiled chameleons can grow to a length of up to 61cm, and can live in a range of conditions.
It is illegal to import them without Environmental Risk Management Authority approval.

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