Federal authorities revealed new details Friday about the rescue of a Bengal tiger cub in San Diego: he was recovered in one of the largest wildlife trafficking sweeps across Southern California.
Monitor lizards, several coral species, king cobras, Asian "lucky" fish and exotic songbirds were among the exotic animals rescued, and sixteen suspects were charged in "Operation Jungle Book." That included the adorable cub that has already captured the hearts of San Diegans.
“We are combatting an ever-growing black market for exotic animals. An insatiable desire to own examples – both living and dead – of these vulnerable creatures is fueling this black market,” said Acting United States Attorney Sandra R. Brown, in a statement.
In the past several months, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office have filed a series of cases that show the scope of the underground market for exotic wildlife. This black market threatens to decimate vulnerable species, said prosecutors.
Luis Eudoro Valencia, 18, has pleaded not guilty to smuggling the tiger cub into the U.S. after border officials found the tiger lying on the passenger-side floor of his car in August. He claimed he bought the cub on the streets of Tijuana, Mexico for $300. If convicted, Valencia faces up to 20 years in prison.
“This is a truly international problem that threatens the survival of iconic species and vulnerable animal populations," added Brown.
A second man, Eriberto Paniagua, 21, is accused of conspiring with Valencia and others to knowingly import the tiger cub into the U.S. He faces similar charges.
Since the tiger was rescued from an alleged smuggling attempt on Aug. 24, he has settled snugly into his new home at the San Diego Zoo.
The cub is now living with a Sumatran tiger cub rejected by his mother, flown in from the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Authorities hope the pair will bond and socialize together so both cubs can grow up to be healthy tigers.
In the San Diego Zoo's most recent tweet, the now 21-pound tiger can be seen sucking at a bottle of milk.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will hold a conference to demonstrate the broad range of species that are being smuggled into the country. They will also recognize the work of law enforcement and community partners in the fight to stop wildlife trafficking, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
“Wildlife trafficking does not stop at international borders, and it is our duty to protect imperiled species both at home and abroad,” said Ed Grace, USFWS Acting Chief of Law Enforcement, in a statement.
Prosecutors said some of the rescued animals are now receiving care at the Los Angeles Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Global, the Turtle Conservancy and the STAR Eco Station.
"Together, we are saving imperiled animals while bringing to justice those who attempt to profit from the illegal wildlife trade," added Grace.