More than 100 rare and endangered dwarf seahorses were discovered packed in a parcel that was sent on a normal 24-hour airmail flight from the US.
The protected animals were found at Stansted airport in Essex in a package marked "live tropical fish", sent by parcel post from Florida. Customs officers were suspicious and opened the package to find two clear plastic bags filled with cloudy water, which, on closer inspection, were found to contain 102 of the thumbnail-sized creatures.
Maddy Ratnett, a spokeswoman for HM Revenue and Customs, said: "Whenever anything live comes into the country it should come by freight with all the right paperwork, not by parcel post.
"It was marked 'live tropical fish' so officers were immediately suspicious and when they looked inside they found 102 dwarf seahorses, which are protected. We think they must have been in transit for at least 24 hours in the cold and it is lucky that so many have survived. We immediately phoned Colchester Zoo who arrived within an hour of our discovery and we are delighted to say 92 of them survived."
She said that nobody has yet come forward to claim them. "This is pretty unusual - it's the first time we've had seahorses through the post," said Ms Ratnett.
All species of seahorse are threatened in the wild and, since May 2004, they have been listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites). This means they are regarded as so scarce that trade must be controlled in order to ensure their use is compatible with their survival. The shipment, which also included 60 sea anemones in a separate plastic bag, was illegal as it had no Cites licence.
The seahorses are now being cared for by specialist staff at Colchester Zoo where keepers were "delighted" with their progress.
Anthony Tropeano, curator at the zoo, said: "The seahorses arrived in a very poor state of health and efforts were made immediately to house them appropriately.
"Their condition has improved but they are still currently in an off-show aquarium at Colchester Zoo and they will remain at Colchester Zoo permanently."
Customs officers are now searching for the importer who failed to collect the package from the airport.
Seahorses are native to the coasts of Texas, Florida and the Bahamas where they live in seagrass and eat krill and other tiny animals.
They are increasingly endangered as their seaside habitat has been disrupted by crowds of tourists, pollution and dredging.
In December 2003, a decayed African monkey was discovered in a parcel at a post office in Ireland after being sent in the post as a Christmas treat. Officials seized the decomposing primate, which weighed about 8kg, after it was posted from Nigeria and destined for an address in the city of Waterford where it was to be consumed over the festive period.
In 2002, three partridges were found in the suitcase of a passenger arriving at Birmingham International Airport from Pakistan.
A week earlier, a woman travelling from Dubai attempted to bring her pet chameleon through Manchester airport after wearing the reptile on her head during the flight.Reuse content