LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A German man who allegedly shipped hundreds of live tarantulas into the United States through the mail was charged on Friday with illegally importing wildlife.
Sven Koppler, a 37-year-old German national, was arrested by federal agents late on Thursday, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles to meet an associate, U.S. Attorney's spokesman Thom Mrozek said in a written statement.
Mrozek said the investigation into Koppler began in March, when a routine inspection turned up about 300 live tarantulas in a package mailed to Los Angeles.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents then intercepted two more packages, one containing nearly 250 live tarantulas, wrapped in colored plastic straws.
The second package was found to hold 22 Mexican red-kneed tarantulas, a species formally known as Brachypelma smithi that is protected under an international treaty.
Mrozek said Fish and Wildlife agents, conducting an investigation dubbed "Operation Spiderman" ordered more spiders from Koppler and were sent a total of five packages containing dozens of live and dead tarantulas.
According to the criminal complaint, agents believe Koppler has received about $300,000 for selling tarantulas to individuals in dozens of countries throughout the world.
Koppler, who prosecutors believe lives in Wachtberg, Germany, was scheduled to make his initial court appearance later on Friday and faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
While many people considered tarantulas threatening, their venom is weaker than a honeybee and other than a painful bite, is harmless to humans.
The Mexican red-kneed tarantula, which is native to Mexico, can grow to about 4 inches long, with a leg span of 6 inches, and has a dark body with orange patches on the legs, giving it the "red-kneed" appearance.
The spiders are considered docile and females can live for more than 20 years.
The Brachypelma genus of spider is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species because it is considered threatened, and can only be legally traded with permits from the exporting country.
(Editing by Greg McCune)