A live tiger cub was found drugged and hidden among stuffed-tiger toys in the luggage of a woman at Bangkok's airport, a wildlife smuggling watchdog group reported Thursday.
The Thai woman was trying to board a flight to Iran on Sunday when she had trouble checking in her oversized bag, the monitoring network TRAFFIC said in a statement.
Airport staff "suspected something amiss when they scanned the bag and X-ray images showed an item resembling a real cat," the group stated.
The woman, identified as Piyawan Palasarn, faces up to four years in prison and a 40,000 baht ($1,300) fine for two wildlife smuggling-related charges, police said.
She denied the luggage with the cub belonged to her and said another passenger had asked her to carry it for them, said Adisorn Noochdumrong, a Thai wildlife official.
The cub could have fetched about 100,000 baht ($3,200) on the black market in Iran, where it is popular to have exotic pets, Adisorn said. He said he did not know what the woman allegedly intended to do with this particular cub.
Thai officials are investigating whether the two-month-old cub was caught in the wild or bred in captivity, as well as where it came from and the suspect's intended final destination.
Tiger populations throughout Asia "are critically threatened by poaching and trade to meet the international demand for tiger parts, products and, as illustrated in this case, live tigers," said TRAFFIC, some of whose funds come from governments around the world.
Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia’s deputy regional director, praised various Thai and U.S. agencies for working to clamp down on wildlife smuggling. but added: "If people are trying to smuggle live tigers in their check-in luggage, they obviously think wildlife smuggling is something easy to get away with and do not fear reprimand.
"Only sustained pressure on wildlife traffickers and serious penalties can change that," he added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.