A first-class passenger was arrested today at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Thailand when authorities found his suitcases were filled with exotic baby leopards, panthers, monkeys and a bear. The animals had been drugged and were en route to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, officials said.
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The man, Noor Mahmoodr, 36, a citizen of the UAE, was about to board his flight when he was apprehended by anti-trafficking officers who had been monitoring him since he allegedly purchased rare animals on the black market, according to the FREELAND Foundation, an anti-trafficking group based in Thailand.
When the suitcases were opened, the baby animals -- all no bigger than puppies -- yawned and cried, said Steven Galster, the director of FREELAND. Inside the two pieces of luggage, along with clothes and other objects, were two leopards, two panthers, an Asiatic black bear and two macaque monkeys inside of baskets.
"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 in canisters with air holes. The animals are now safe and being cared for.
Thailand's international airport uses metal detectors to screen luggage before passengers board flights. The sleeping animals could have easily slipped past security.
"They're not metal, these animals," Galster told ABC News. "The canisters they were put in could have disguised them looking like clothes folded up."
Officials said they believe the man was part of a larger trafficking network and are searching for any 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 suitcase."
Thailand is a major hub for the illegal trafficking of wildlife, mostly because it has its own exotic breeds and a sophisticated infrastructure of roads, trains and airports that allow for quick transport.
The country also has lax laws regarding wildlife trafficking and many loopholes that traffickers can easily use to avoid arrest, Galster said.
Some traffickers apparently believe the potential gains are worth the risk, given that the maximum fine for trafficking animals is about $1,300. Any one of the apprehended cubs could fetch $5,000 -- sometimes more -- on the black market.
"Where they were going, I wouldn't be surprised if they could get about $10,000," Galster said of Dubai.
There are few consequences for even those who have been charged. Mahmoodr was released on bail this morning, according to Galster.
"That happens all the time," he said. "The cops are doing a great job, but the judicial system is not backing them up."