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Did Iran Just Try to Smuggle in a Tiger in a Suitcase?

One of Iran's Tigers on Exchange,  (Photo by Hemmat Khani courtesy IWPR)

One of Iran's Tigers on Exchange, (Photo by Hemmat Khani courtesy IWPR)

A Thai woman was caught with a sedated tiger cub in luggage she had checked on a flight to Iran, Traffic reports. Alert security workers at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport X-rayed her “oversized” bag and saw a cat skeleton amidst a bag full of stuffed animal toys. Wildlife officials are still trying to figure out where she got the tiger and where it was supposed to go. Could Iran itself have wanted another Siberian tiger–either for its tiny, odd breeding program or for the Tehran’s Eram zoo, where those tigers first stayed?

The 31-year old Thai national was scheduled to board a Mahan Air flight destined for Iran when she had trouble checking in her oversized bag. She was flying on Iran’s own Mahan Airlines, whose only flight from Bangkok that day was a five and half hour journey headed directly to Tehran, where it arrived at four in the morning. Thai nationals can get a tourist visa to Iran pretty easily.

By fatwa Iranians aren’t supposed to have any (cats might be ok, but dogs, especially black ones, are as verboten as mullets). Who knows if they have the same problem we do of big jerks wanting big cats as pets? But I can’t imagine anyone trying to smuggle a tiger into Iran, then keep it without authorities knowing.

They don’t have any native wild tigers. The native Caspian or Mazandaran tiger (Panthera tigris ssp. virgata) has been extinct since 1970 and was last seen in Iran in about 1960. Its closely related to the endangered Siberian tiger. In April Iran and Russia had a big cat exchange, with Iran sending two Persian leopards and Russia–where Vladmir Putin is known as a big tiger lover and advocate–sent two Siberian tigers, including a pregnant female, due in June. The tiger cub stuffed in luggage was two months old and so it would be about the same age. There are certainly worse places a tiger cub could end up aside from programs to reintroduce the animals to the wild. Thai researchers will do DNA tests to figure out which tiger subspecies the cat is, which may give some indication of where it came from.

Russian media noted that the tigers didn’t like the heat at the zoo. The Eram zoo has the kind of depressing cages you see in countries that aren’t so hot on animals.

They were there about a month, then moved to the Miankaleh nature preserve near the Caspian Sea, where the Tehran Times says Iran’s own tigers were last seen.  Russian scientists will still manage the breeding program. They’ll have a 50-hectacre pen and a pool, according to a report from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which was highly skeptical of the pursuit.

The operation seems pretty sloppy. As you might imagine, a tiger in checked luggage would die. The local TV news says the tiger was so dehydrated and exhausted it needed oxygen therapy. But, there’s good news at the end: Bangkok Post says the tiger cub is headed to a sanctuary and the 31-year-old tiger smuggler faces four years in jail.

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