At least 400 reptiles and amphibians smuggled from Madascar and destined for America's exotic pet trade have been found dead in South Africa after their connecting flight was delayed.
More than 1,600 of the creatures were found when staff noticed a bad smell during an inspection of the cargo building at Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport.
The geckos, frogs, chameleons, skinks, lizards and toads, many of them endangered species, had been tied up in small muslin bags or crammed into overcrowded plastic tubs for about five days.
About a third of the animals were already dead by the time they were found on Wednesday.
The animals were left unattended in the cargo area when flights to the U.S. were cancelled after their destination airports were hit by storms.
Ainsley Hay, a spokesman for South Africa's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told the South African Press Association that the reptiles and amphibians were found during a routine inspection.
'The bad smell coming from the sealed animal crates indicated that many of the reptiles were dead or dying and in need of urgent assistance,' she said.
The surviving reptiles have been taken to the Johannesburg Zoo for treatment.
Miss Hay added: 'Many animals could not move or turn around in their containers. None had been provided with water which caused extreme dehydration in the surviving animals.'
A zoo official said that about 400 of the 1,685 animals have already died from the stress of air travel and shock of being removed from their natural habitat.
The surviving reptiles will be quarantined for 30 days. 'They are not fit for travel, they cannot leave, there is nowhere to go at the moment,' said Katja Koeppel, the zoo's chief vet.
'So they gave them to us. My problem is trying to keep them alive.'
The zoo has yet to identify all the species received but Ms Koeppel said it had already been established that some are listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.
This will put their discovery in transit to the U.S. high in the radar screen of conservationists.
Ms Hay said it was a concern that rare animals were being seen as mere commodities, without concern for the welfare.
'People who have exotic animals as pets must realise that they are causing this cruelty,' she told SAPA. 'Without the demand for these animals as pets, there would be no market and these animals would not be stolen from the wild.' Photos.