Twelve critically endangered iguanas seized from Romanian smugglers at Heathrow Airport have been returned to their native Bahamas.
The reptiles were discovered stuffed into suitcases and each wrapped individually in a sock by Border Force staff at the airport’s Terminal 5 on February 3.
Thirteen were rescued, but one was found to have died in transit.
The animals were San Salvador rock iguanas, a species so rare that only a few hundred are known to be in existence, and their trade is strictly controlled as they are so endangered.
They were brought to Britain from the Bahamas by Angla-Alina Bita, then 26, and Vitora-Oliva Bucsa, 24, and were bound for Dusseldorf in Germany.
Each woman was sentenced to 12 months in prison for smuggling after an investigation by the National Crime Agency.
On Wednesday the iguanas were flown from an animal reception centre at Heathrow to the Bahamian capital Nassau, accompanied by two Border Force officers.
The reptiles were given free passage aboard a British Airways flight, and as they are so rare were allowed to travel in the main cabin of the aircraft.
They were then transported to a government research station on the island of San Salvador, where experts will monitor them before hopefully returning them to the wild.
Grant Miller, head of the Border Force’s endangered species team, said it had been an “incredibly significant” seizure and that it was clear from the start that it was vital to return them to their natural habitat.
He said: “Arranging the repatriation of such rare animals is complex and sensitive, but I’m delighted that through our close work with the Bahamian authorities, British Airways, the City of London Corporation and other partners, we have succeeded.
“Not only has Border Force made sure that the criminals responsible for smuggling these animals are behind bars, we’re also proud to have been able to play a part in safeguarding the future of this species.”
The Bahamas minister of the environment, Kenred Dorsett, said that the “systematic pillaging” of wildlife was “devastating” for small island states such as the Bahamas and thanked the UK government for going to such “extraordinary lengths” to ensure the return of the iguanas.
He said: “Wildlife crime is a global problem, which only collectively we can address.
“This crime plagues animals and plants particularly, like the case of the Bahamian iguanas, species which are extremely rare and from remote places.”
The BA flight’s captain, Al Matthews, said the reptiles received the best service possible during their flight home.
He said: “Naturally, all of our customers are special, but despite having flown prime ministers and members of the Royal Family, these iguanas are by far the most unusual.
“You don’t expect to share your cabin with incredibly rare reptiles.
“However, I can confirm all the iguanas were securely stored throughout the flight and had the most comfortable journey possible.”