By NICOLA BOYES
A snake smuggling ring in which breeding pairs are being sold for up to $10,000 is being investigated in New Zealand.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has received information about the importation of snakes into New Zealand for pets.
Snakes are not able to be kept legally by anyone in New Zealand.
The ministry's national assistant director-general of biosecurity, Dr Barry O'Neil, told an Environment Waikato biosecurity committee that MAF was investigating leads into a black market for snakes, which were being sold for between $5000 and $10,000 a breeding pair.
MAF wild life enforcement group team leader Colin Hitchcock confirmed that the ministry was investigating the importation of snakes for pets.
"We believe there may well have been an importation at some stage and we're certainly looking at the methodology and how these things got here, if they did."
He said the ministry had not seen the snakes but people keeping them in their homes "were not likely to publicise the fact".
He refused to comment further for fear of compromising the investigation.
Mr Hitchcock said exotic reptiles such as water dragons and bearded dragons, which were being legally bred in New Zealand, were becoming more popular and increasing the demand for other species.
"There's lots of money to be made by unscrupulous people who want to do imports of reptiles into New Zealand ... "
Mr Hitchcock said the ministry was interested in the arrest of a man at Brisbane Airport last week trying to smuggle 19 snakes from Singapore.
He said baby coloured pythons were found inside cigarette packets in a purpose-built vest the man was wearing.
Coloured pythons, such as the green tree python, were the most common snakes kept as pets, Mr Hitchcock said, although collectors could want any breed, including venomous snakes.
The ministry carried out a search warrant at a Palmerston North house last year looking for snakes but did not find any.
Auckland pet shop owners said they had received inquiries from people wanting to buy snakes.
Four Seasons Pets owner Jill Fraser said she regularly got inquiries from people wanting to keep snakes.
She said most came from foreigners who did not understand New Zealand's biosecurity rules.
She had received emails from people offering to supply animals as well but mainly they related to exotic birds.
Jansen's livestock manager, Graham Cater, said he had not received any inquiries for snakes but customers had talked about them.
"We don't get a lot of call for them. There was a report of some in New Zealand some years back now."
He said foreigners had talked about being able to keep snakes in the countries they came from but it was explained they could not keep them in New Zealand.
Mr Hitchcock said illegal wildlife smuggling was an $8 billion international business.
New Zealand was only beginning to become part of it.
By NICOLA BOYES