Animals

Aussie Lizard Smuggling: Miami Man Accused of "Gift -Wrapping" Australian Skinks

Spiny-tailed skink
Spiny-tailed skink Photo by Brebybun/Flickr
Miami's got 99 problems, but a shortage of invasive reptiles ain't one.

While Burmese pythons and tegu lizards are invading South Florida's Everglades and beyond, federal authorities say a Miami man captured 33 live spiny-tailed skinks in their natural habitat in Western Australia, "gift-wrapped" them in boxes to avoid detection while shipping them stateside, and then secured the sale of two skinks for about $2,500 each.

Jose Francesco Munoz Di Rocco, along with an accomplice from Oregon, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a conspiracy charge and is expected to be sentenced in February. Both face up to five years behind bars and fines up to $250,000, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida.

Di Rocco could not be reached by phone and his attorney declined to comment. Spiny-tailed skinks, which are native to Australia, are spiky, stout lizards with tiny legs, long toes, and sharp little teeth. They resemble short, chunky snakes with feet. They generally eat spiders and insects and can usually live in hollowed trees.

According to federal court records, in the early months of 2018, Di Rocco and Francisco Manuel Rodriguez of Medford, Oregon, planned a trip to Broome, a beach town in Western Australia, where they captured three species of spiny-tailed skinks. The skinks were then packaged in gift-wrapped boxes with souvenirs to avoid detection by authorities.

Twenty live lizards were headed to Miami, 13 to Medford, Oregon.

It's not clear when authorities with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Australian Border Force caught on to the international lizard-smuggling scheme, though court documents include money transfers between Di Rocco and Rodriguez, apparently splitting proceeds from the only known attempted sale of the two skinks.

It's against federal law both in the U.S. and Australia to import wildlife without proper declaration.

Both men were indicted in July of this year.
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Michael Majchrowicz is a staff writer at Miami New Times. He studied journalism at Indiana University and has reported for PolitiFact, The New York Times, Washington Post, the Post and Courier, and Tampa Bay Times.