updated 1/26/2010 7:00:43 PM ET 2010-01-27T00:00:43

A German reptile collector has been jailed for 14 weeks and must pay a 5,000 New Zealand dollar ($3,540) fine for plundering New Zealand's wild gecko and skink populations, a judge  ruled Tuesday.

Hans Kurt Kubus, 58, is to be deported to Germany as soon as he is released from prison, Judge Colin Doherty ordered.

Kubus was caught by wildlife officials at Christchurch International Airport on South Island in December, about to board an overseas flight with 44 geckos and skinks in a hand-sewn package concealed in his underwear.

Fourteen of the 15 adult female geckos and 12 of the 14 female skinks were pregnant, officials said.

Kubus admitted trading in exploited species without a permit and hunting protected wildlife without authority, pleading guilty to two charges under the Wildlife Act and five under the Trade in Endangered Species Act.

Department of Conservation prosecutor Mike Bodie told Christchurch District Court that Kubus could have faced potential maximum penalties of 500,000 New Zealand dollars and six months in prison.

Bodie told Doherty that the department sought a deterrent sentence for "the most serious case of its kind detected in New Zealand for a decade or more."

$2,800 a gecko possible
The geckos may have been worth $2,800 each on the European market, he noted.

"Internationally, this type of trade is prevalent and is on the increase worldwide and can be lucrative," he said.

Customs records showed that Kubus had also been to New Zealand in 2001, 2004, 2008, and 2009. In 2008, he had been with a Swiss reptile dealer.

Doherty said Kubus had come to New Zealand and set about poaching the animals in a premeditated way that would have had an impact on particular colonies.

There was a potential for Kubus to end up with far more animals than he could have housed in his own collection and the rest would have been sold.

"I don't think you necessarily came here to steal to sell, but I am sure the fact that you might have had excess was figured into your thinking," said the judge, describing the offending as "pretty close to the worst case."

Smuggling worth billions
Greg Reid, a conservation official with the government, said the species involved were all intended for the international illegal trade in wildlife.

"New Zealand’s endemic species are especially sought after by black market pet collectors," he said when Kubus was arrested. "In terms of export, geckos are one of the most valuable species and can be worth vast sums on the black market."

"Wildlife smuggling is a global, multi-billion dollar business, estimated by Interpol at $6–8 billion annually and second only to the global drug trade," added Customs official Mark Day. "Like the drug trade, the trade in endangered species is fuelled by greed."

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