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Smuggler hid 5,000 live, blood-sucking leeches in his carry-on, Canadian officials say

Canada slapped a traveler with a $15,000 fine after he was caught at the airport with a bizarre, blood-sucking secret in his carry-on luggage, officials said.

Ippolit Bodounov of Niagara Falls, Ontario, had flown from Russia to Canada on Oct. 17, 2018, when agents discovered “a large quantity of live leeches in his carry-on luggage” at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, the country’s environment and climate change agency said in a news release Monday.

“An enforcement officer detained the leeches to identify the species and determine if the import was lawful,” environment officials said.

Lawful it was not: Bodounov pleaded guilty in an Ontario court on Friday to charges that he violated the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act, Canadian officials said. The fine will be put into the country’s Environmental Damages Fund, officials said. He’s also barred from importing and exporting regulated endangered animals for the next year.

Gerry Brunet of the environment agency’s wildlife enforcement division said a border agent dog smelled the trove of leeches — 4,788 of them — which were kept in 10 small, wet cloth bags tucked in a reusable grocery bag, the CBC reports. A spokesperson for Canada’s environment agency confirmed that number in an email to McClatchy on Tuesday..

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Canadian officers handle the leeches found in a man’s carry-on at the Toronto airport, where he had flown from Russia, according to Canada’s environmental agency. Environment Climate Change Canada

Canadian officials said the worldwide illegal wildlife trade is worth as much as $20 billion each year “and threatens many of the world’s most treasured wildlife species.”

That includes the leeches Bodounov was caught with, officials said.

Dr. Sebastian Kvist, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Royal Ontario Museum, helped identify the seized leeches “as Hirudo verbana, one of only two species of medicinal leech that are subject to regulations aimed at controlling wildlife trade,” officials said.

Kvist said each leech can sell for up to $20 and that they have been shown to improve blood flow in human fingers or toes that get reattached — but there’s no research to support other “new age” uses for the blood-sucking animals, such as preventing hair loss, the CBC reported.

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The imported leeches had been taken from the wild in Europe, according to Canadian officials. Environment Climate Change Canada

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City was sent 1,000 of the confiscated leeches to study, an environment agency spokesperson said. Experts there sequenced DNA from the guts of about 240 of the leeches, which confirmed that all of the animals had likely been captured in the wild in Europe, officials said.

“These species are regulated because over-harvesting of medicinal leeches from the wild is a major threat to the species,” officials explained.

Because Bodounov did not have a permit to bring the animals to Canada, he was charged with unlawfully importing a regulated species, officials said.

Canadian officials said medicinal leeches — whose blood-thinning saliva helped develop dialysis treatments — are regulated as drugs in Canada and were among the first species to be protected by conservation measures, starting in 1823.

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