There's little new about exotic animals being seized at airport security. Who could forget the 17-year-old from Dubai who tried to smuggle her chameleon into Manchester by wearing it as a hat? (“At first I thought it was plastic,” said another passenger, “but then I saw its tongue flick out.”)
Or the strange case of Robert Cusack, who took two monkeys through Los Angeles Airport in 2002 inside his trousers? Not to forget the four birds of paradise in his suitcase.
For bulk, though, nothing compares with the UK Border Agency’s latest seizure: 94 kilograms of caterpillars.
Gatwick Airport’s border officers discovered the haul – amounting to tens of thousands of dried insects – in the luggage of a 22-year-old man who had travelled from Burkina Faso via Istanbul.
The caterpillars were found last Saturday, shrink-wrapped in cellophane and stuffed into four hessian bags.
The man claimed that the creatures were for “personal consumption”.
Unfortunately for him, they have now been destroyed.
According to the UK Border Force, which said the seizure was the biggest ever of its kind, the insects breach controls on the importation of “products of animal origin”.
Specialists said that they were likely to be mopane worms, the larvae of emperor moths, which are commonly eaten throughout Africa.
Import restrictions apply to products made from meat, dairy, fish, eggs and honey, as well as some fruit, vegetables and plants. The man responsible has been warned about UK restrictions on importing dried insects.
Stuart Hine, an insect expert at the Natural History Museum, said there was unlikely to be a “tangible threat” to the UK food chain.
“These are likely to be mopane worms, dried caterpillars of the moth, Gonimbrasia belina,” he told The Independent. “These are eaten commonly throughout Africa and are already sold through outlets in the UK, so I can’t see that there is a tangible threat to our food chain.
“That said once this kind of insect foodstuff becomes more common in the UK, either imported or otherwise, it will eventually be subject to UK food standards. At the moment its sale and use is deemed somewhat as a novelty and food standards are not necessarily invoked.”
“This was an unusual seizure but the vigilance of our officers has stopped these dried insects from entering the UK, and possibly posing a risk to our food chain,” proclaimed Ingrid Smith, from the Border Force. “I would warn travellers not to attempt to bring any products of animal origin into the UK without a permit, as they may not have been inspected to appropriate standards and may contain diseases.”
A growing number of UK outlets sell dried Mopane worms for human consumption. The online retailer Firebox sells 40g bags for £16.99, and claims that they contain three times the protein content of beef. The caterpillar smuggler may be aggrieved to know that, at £16.99 for 40g, replacing his 94kg of caterpillars would cost him just under £40,000.