Agents conducting the largest sweep of animal trafficking in Southern California found a sprawling "black market" that put exotic pets in peril, officials said. Among the startling discoveries: a Bengal tiger who was severely underweight, dozens of dead Asian songbirds and King Cobras smuggled inside potato chip cans.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday that the months-long "Operation Jungle Book" led to the arrest of 16 people, each charged with the federal crimes of illegal importation and transportation of several live species.
The arrests signal a growth in such illegal smuggling, said acting U.S. Attorney Sandra Brown of the Central District of California.
"An insatiable desire to own examples — both living and dead — of these vulnerable creatures is fueling this black market," Brown said in a statement. "This is a truly international problem that threatens the survival of iconic species and vulnerable animal populations."
Among those arrested, officials said, was Nicholas Bishop, also known as "Nick the Wrangler." According to an affidavit, the 27-year-old falsified documents that permitted him to purchase a Bengal tiger, an endangered species, from Wildlife in Need, a nonprofit organization based in Indiana that aims to rehabilitate and release exotic and endangered species back into their natural habitats.
Fish and Wildlife Service agents found the tiger in a backyard, withered down to just 100 pounds. The animal has since been brought back to a healthier weight of over 400 pounds, officials said.
Another suspect, Rodrigo Franco, 34, admitted to smuggling King Cobras in potato chip cans, which were intercepted by U.S. customs officers, authorities said. He allegedly smuggled 23 cobras with a black market value totaling $46,000.
Upon searching his home, agents also retrieved a Morelet's crocodile, also known as a Mexican crocodile, and several turtle species found in a child's bedroom. All the animals are protected under a treaty signed among 183 nations that ensures international trade of wild animals does not threaten their survival.
In another case, officials said, the agents arrested Kevin Duc Vu, 45, who pleaded guilty to smuggling Arowana fish, which are presumed to be the world's most expensive aquarium fish.
In Asia, the Arowana — also known as "lucky" fish — are regarded as symbols of good luck and prosperity. Duc Vu allegedly sent the fish along with three turtle species in a package to his wife. The package contained 14 turtles, six of which died while being transported.
The federal investigation found that Duc Vu had allegedly ordered Arowana fish and turtles from overseas before, and sold the fish at $1,900 each and some of the turtle species for as much as $2,000 each.
Another case examined the smuggling of 93 Asian songbirds that were worth a combined $100,000.
Kurtis Law, 50, shipped them during a flight from Vietnam, authorities said. All but eight birds died in transit or soon after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport.
Law was arrested and was sentenced to one year in federal prison and then six months under house arrest, officials said.