TAMPA — The contraband — 20 live rare water monitor lizards from the Philippines — arrived in the United States hidden in socks that were sealed with tape and concealed in the backs of stereo speakers or other electronic equipment.
Not all of them survived, court records show.
But some that did ended up in the hands of exotic pet collectors in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Colorado, according to the Pasco County man who pleaded guilty this week to arranging the smuggling.
Akbar Akram, 44, of Holiday told authorities the lizards were worth about $1,000 each. But federal prosecutors say they could have a retail value in the exotic pet market of as much as $2,500 each for a total value of up to $50,000.
During 2016, the monitor lizards, popular among collectors for their unique colors, attractive patterns, intelligence and rarity, were brought to the U.S. in five shipments under false labels, according to Akram’s guilty plea. Akram used social media to communicate with two co-conspirators in the Philippines and another in Massachusetts who received the shipments.
There are about 70 different species of monitor lizards, known for their elongated necks, heavy bodies, long, forked tongues, strong claws and long tails. Various species have turned up around Florida, unnerving homeowners and eluding trappers.
Water monitor lizards range across South and Southeastern Asia, easily swimming long distances. Species found in the Philippines include the yellow-headed, white-headed and marbled water monitor. Importing them is banned by both U.S. law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Treaty.
“Akram violated Philippine law and U.S. law by illegally trafficking live water monitor lizards” and sought "to profit from trafficking protected species,” Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark, of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement after the plea.
Efforts to reach Akram via three possible cell phone numbers were unsuccessful. His attorney, Steven Bartlett of Trinity, did not respond to a message left at his office or to an email from the Tampa Bay Times seeking comment.
Akram is scheduled to be sentenced March 27. In August, a federal judge in Boston sentenced Derrick Semedo, the man who received the illegally shipped lizards, to 24 months of probation.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.