Johannesburg - A bad smell coming from the cargo-holding facility at OR Tambo International Airport tipped off a National Council of SPCAs inspector.
When the two crates were opened on Wednesday, they found 1 600 reptiles and amphibians, some dead, others dying and the rest in urgent need of attention.
The animals, which had come from Madagascar, had been without water and food for at least five days.
By Wednesday night, staff at Johannesburg Zoo were trying desperately to save the surviving animals.
The consignment was bound for Atlanta, and was meant to depart for the US on Tuesday, but the flight was cancelled because of bad weather in the US.
It is believed that the reptiles were destined for the exotic pet trade.
The animals, which included at least 30 different species of geckos, frogs, chameleons, skinks, lizards and toads, had been placed in two crates about half-a-metre in size.
The chameleons were tied in small muslin bags, while the other reptiles and amphibians were crammed into plastic tubs.
Some of the animals were so tightly packed together that they were unable to move or turn around.
“The chameleons are so tightly wrapped that they form a cocoon, then they are hung from a stick like a hammock. This is how they stayed for five days,” said Ainsley Hay, manager of the NSPCA wildlife protection unit.
Many of the animals are listed as endangered species under the Cites appendix II protocol, meaning that they can be traded, but only with a special permit.
The Star understands that the company moving the animals had the necessary permits to transport them, but Hay says the NSPCA is investigating charges of animal cruelty.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries was also investigating the incident, said Hay.
There might be other charges once the consignment has been fully examined, he said.
No one knows when the animals were caught in the wild or how long they had gone without water.
Brett Gardner, a vet at Johannesburg Zoo, said they were so overwhelmed with the number of animals that they had to ask a pet shop for assistance.
The pet shop had to supply them with specialised food, cages, and mosses for the frogs.
Since Wednesday night staff had been trying to save as many of the animals as possible.
At least 330 have died.
“Some have died from kidney failure caused by dehydration, and others from skin infections from sitting on dead animals,” said Gardner.
He said some of the frogs they were dealing with were the size of a thumbnail and were extremely rare.
“How it works with this trade is that a few percent of the animals are expected to survive, but that is enough to make good money. For those that die, it is simply collateral damage. What this is is a massacre,” Gardner said.
Some of the frog species found in the consignment sell for $100 (R1 115) in the US. They are bought in Madagascar for $1 each, said Gardner.
The future of those animals that Johannesburg Zoo staff are able to save is uncertain.
Previous attempts to repatriate animals to Madagascar have proved unsuccessful.
Gardner hoped that he would be able to give the animals to local zoos and other facilities that were not linked to the exotic pet trade. - The Star