SAN FRANCISCO — The airmail package from Australia was labeled "camera lens"--but when a U.S. Customs inspector opened it and reached in, something wriggled.
Inside were two small pythons and a death adder, a snake whose bite has enough venom to kill an adult.
The Oakland inspector wasn't bitten. But the incident is one of a growing number in which U.S. authorities have detected attempts to smuggle rare or dangerous reptiles from Australia through the mail.
A federal grand jury in San Francisco is now investigating. In the last year, several San Francisco Bay Area reptile lovers have been charged with illegal possession of hundreds of snakes and lizards, some of them poisonous.
Pet shops report that sales of legal reptiles and amphibians have grown steadily. Collectors pay up to $2,000 for specimens like the Australian blackheaded python.
"I have everyone from little old ladies to Hells Angels who are regulars in my shop," said Owen Maercks, manager of the East Bay Vivarium in Emeryville, which claims to be the nation's largest retail over-the-counter reptile store.
And for animals not available legally, law enforcement officials say, a black market has sprung up to meet demand.
"I can get any kind of reptile imaginable," said Mitch Whyte, a collector who has had as many as 200 venomous snakes and whose home was raided by state and federal agents last year.
Australian reptiles are usually smuggled into California in mislabeled airmail packages, according to Customs agents.
In the last 18 months, agents at San Francisco airport have seized about 40 packages containing about 100 reptiles, according to James A. Miller, U.S. Customs mail administrator for the San Francisco region. The packages were labeled as T-shirts, souvenirs and Christmas gifts.
The animals often are cooled first and wrapped in insulated material. In this state of semi-hibernation they have a survival rate of about 50%.
"It's very scary," said Tony Quadra, a Customs mail handler, who has worn gloves since he was bitten by a lizard in a package from Kenya.
Authorities also are concerned that dangerous reptiles could threaten other wildlife if they escaped and successfully multiplied, said C. K. Pourroy, a state game warden.
Federal agents in New York and Los Angeles have confiscated reptiles from Africa and Mexico. But the majority seized in California are from Australia.
"Virtually everything reptilian and Australian has a market overseas," said Darryl Miller, head of the wildlife protection section of the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Australian law prohibits export of reptiles without a permit for scientific purposes, Miller said. In addition, the U.S. Lacey Act bars possession of any animal taken in violation of state or foreign laws. California prohibits importing wildlife without a state permit.
Since Australia will not take back confiscated reptiles for fear that they carry disease, many rare specimens are distributed to zoos across the country, said Ken McCloud, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspector.
In November, Customs warned San Francisco inspectors to watch for the Australian taipan, a green or light brown snake up to 12 feet long which has "20 times the amount of venom necessary to kill a human being."
Inspectors wear boots and gloves, and use special tubes to look into Australian packages before opening them. They wear masks to protect against African spitting cobras.
In case of bites, they have arranged for Stanford University Hospital to store rare antivenin, McCloud said.
In December, agents raided the San Jose residence of Robert J. Stene. They suspected him of illegally smuggling Australian reptiles for sale to private collectors for up to $1,000 each, according to a search warrant affidavit.
The affidavit alleged that Stene was responsible for mailing 13 packages containing 77 lizards to various San Francisco Bay Area addresses. The shipments--worth an estimated $22,100--were intercepted at San Francisco airport in November, it says.
Sources said Stene, 26, is under investigation by the federal grand jury, but he has not been charged, and he denied illegal activities in an interview.
"They say there is a major international smuggling scheme," Stene said. "They are misinformed."
In another case, Randall Theodore Graham pleaded guilty last April in San Francisco federal court to one count of illegally importing Australian reptiles. He was sentenced to six months in federal custody.
According to a search warrant affidavit for his Sacramento home, Graham in 1985 allegedly mailed 2 bearded lizards, 2 skinks and 10 tree frogs in a box marked "Souvenir T-Shirts and Blouses."