NEW DELHI: Six members of a suspected international smuggling racket were arrested with an estimated US$15 million of snake venom hidden in school bags close to Bhutan border in eastern India, officials said on Sunday.

The gang were riding two motorbikes and carrying school bags containing three bullet-proof glass containers of the venom when they were arrested by police on Saturday in Baikunthpur forest area of Jalpaiguri district in West Bengal.

“This haul is worth at least 100 crore ($15 million) in (the) international market. There are three different containers with venom in coco-cola liquid form, white crystals and yellow granule form,” PR Pradhan, divisional forest officer, Baikunthpur forest division, told AFP.

The glass containers are stamped with “Made in France”, Pradhan said, adding that the arrested men said the consignment may have arrived from France before they picked it up from Bangladesh for delivery in Bhutan. The venom is believed to be from a cobra but chemical tests are being conducted to identify the snake species, he said.

Jalpaiguri’s police chief Akash Meghariya said the smugglers were being questioned about their links to an international syndicate.

“They are part of the international racket. The case is being investigated,” Meghariya told AFP, adding that they have been arrested under the Wildlife Protection Act which bans the extraction of venom from protected snake species, including cobras.

Under Indian law the “milking” of many other snake species is allowed.

Wildlife experts say illegal trade of snake venom and skin is widespread with frequent recoveries reported across the country. Extracted venom is mostly used as an antidote for snake bites, which according to World Health Organisation kill an estimated half a million people globally every year. Snake venom is also used in some cosmetics.