Live, medicinal leeches found in cloth bags on flight from Russia
A Niagara Falls, Ont., man has been fined $15,000 after he was caught flying into Canada with a suitcase full of leeches.
Ippolit Bodounov tried to smuggle 4,788 live, medicinal leeches in his carry-on luggage on Oct. 17, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC). He'd just flown from Russia to Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
Bodounov carried the leeches in a large reusable grocery bag, said Gerry Brunet, operations manager of ECCC's wildlife enforcement directorate, based in Burlington, Ont. Within that bag were 10 smaller, dampened cloth bags.
A dog working with border agents smelled the leeches, Brunet said.
"This is our first large-scale illegal leech import," he said, though the ministry sees a lot of illegally imported reptiles, turtles, tortoises and snakes.
The ministry sent the leeches to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where Sebastian Kvist, curator of invertebrate zoology, identified them as Hirudo verbana, a threatened medicinal leech.
Surprisingly, all the leeches survived, Kvist said.
About 240 were then sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where DNA sequencing of their stomach contents revealed they were caught in the wild.
A wildlife enforcement officer looks at some of the confiscated leeches. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)
People have been harvesting the breed for medicinal purposes since medieval times, Kvist said. "New age medicine" practitioners use them for everything from lessening arthritis pain to preventing baldness, he said, although there's no scientific proof that this works.
The only proven use of leeches in medicine, he said, is to stimulate blood flow in reattached fingers and toes. In some cases, they also deter strokes. Medicinal leeches sell for between $8 and $20 per leech, he said.
Not only are they threatened, and unregulated, but they're an invasive species too. Kvist said some leech populations exclusive to Europe have been found in Alberta because people drop them in local lakes when they're done with them.
Bodounov pleaded guilty on May 24 to violating the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act.
A wildlife enforcement officer and Sebastian Kvist, a leech expert at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, identify the species. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)
He was fined, and also banned for a year from importing, exporting and possessing any animals regulated through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Brunet said illegal wildlife trade is worth about $20 billion a year.
"Canada does not tolerate the exploitation of threatened species for profit," he said.
Some leeches were sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where tests determined they were caught in the wild. (Shutterstock)