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Man jailed over Madagascar animal smuggling

/ Source: The Associated Press

A South African man accused of attempting to smuggle hundreds of rare chameleons, snakes, lizards and frogs out of Madagascar inside his jacket and luggage was convicted Tuesday and sentenced to a year in jail.

Jo van Niekerk, a 29-year-old zoology student from Pretoria, was arrested in November at Antananarivo airport. Around 100 lizards and frogs were pulled from inside the lining of his jacket, including a dead lizard, officials said.

"It's the first time someone has been caught with a beast in their jacket," Andriamanganiaina Rakotobe of Madagascar's Environment Ministry told The Associated Press.

Police say the 388 animals in the case included several species only found on the Indian Ocean island off the southeastern coast of Africa, including a fanged snake and the nocturnal leaf-tailed gecko.

Van Niekerk insisted his interest in the animals was for research purposes, investigators said. He declined to be interviewed.

His lawyer, Solo Hery Rabenarivo, said he would appeal Tuesday's ruling. But he said the verdict could have been worse, since offenses of this kind carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

Accomplice reportedly on the run
Police said a separate arrest warrant has been issued for an alleged accomplice who they say is on the run.

Lieutenant Colonel Jean Hubert Zipa, who was in charge of the police investigation, praised the conviction.

"It is an example to everybody that there is no impunity" for animal smugglers in Madagascar, he said.

But the Environment Ministry called for stronger laws protecting the country's biodiversity.

"A year is not enough," Rakotobe said. "We feel vulnerable."

All the recovered animals are now at Antananarivo's main zoo. It is not clear whether they will be returned to their natural habitat.