A U.S. customs inspector noticed something suspicious one early morning last August: a cat-like object lying on the passenger side floor of a Chevy Camaro crossing into California from Mexico.
Court documents show that Eriberto Paniagua, then 21, who was sitting in the passenger seat, told customs that the creature was “just a cat.”
As it turned out, the tan-colored animal with black stripes was more exotic than your average house cat. It was later identified by veterinarians with the San Diego Zoo Safari Park as a four-to-five-week-old Bengal tiger that was in “good health overall” and would begin teething in a couple of weeks. They named him “Moka” and he’s now on display.
On February 20 Luis Valencia—the 18-year-old driver of the car—was sentenced to six months in prison for trying to smuggle the tiger, an endangered species, into the U.S.
The Endangered Species Act bans the import of tigers without a permit, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora prohibits the sale of tigers or their parts across borders. Although it’s a federal crime to import tigers without the proper paperwork, states allow possession of them.
Charged in August with wildlife smuggling, Valencia faced 20 years in prison or a $250,000 fine. Paniagua, who is scheduled to be sentenced on February 26, could also receive that penalty.
According to the BBC, Valencia’s lawyer argued that Valencia had “a lapse of judgment” and wanted to keep the tiger as a pet at his home in Perris, California. Valencia told a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent that he saw a man with an adult tiger in Tijuana on a Monday and bought the cub from him for $300 that same day, court documents show. He later changed his story after investigators found messages on his cellphone from a few days earlier that included photos of the seized cub, a different baby tiger, and an adult tiger. Prosecutors argued that he also sent messages bragging about earning thousands of dollars from selling monkeys, jaguars, and lions.
Unbeknownst to customs officers, says Dan Crum, Sacramento, California-based special agent in charge for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state of California had already launched an investigation into Valencia as part of a larger operation in southern California to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade—a multibillion-dollar global industry that affects millions of animals around the world. Dubbed “Operation Jungle Book,” the investigation resulted in the arrest of 16 people and the rescue of 200 animals, including monitor lizards, king cobras, and songbirds.
The southern border of the U.S.—where customs officers seized Valencia’s tiger cub—is a hot zone for wildlife smuggling. More than a quarter of the nearly 50,000 black market shipments of live animals and wildlife products seized at ports of entry from 2005 through 2014 originated in Latin America, according to a fact sheet from Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife. The top seized live animals are reptiles and parrots, Fish and Wildlife Service agent Nicholas Chavez told Wildlife Watch last year.
“The illegal [wildlife] trade is pretty big business,” Crum says. “The U.S. is sometimes a destination and transit point, and the border along California and Mexico happens to be one of those flash points for trafficking.”
Yet it had been 26 years since customs officers confiscated a live tiger at the border between San Diego and Mexico, according to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune last year. It’s unusual for tigers to be smuggled into the U.S. in general because their large size makes them more visible, says Carole Baskin, founder of Florida-based sanctuary Big Cat Rescue. There are more tigers in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world—as many as 5,000, according to World Wildlife Fund. But most, Baskin says, are born in captivity—not smuggled in.
It’s unclear what Valencia and Paniagua intended to do with this young tiger. Most are sold as pets or exploited in roadside attractions where people pay to cuddle with them and pose with them for selfies.
Baskin notes that the seizure of this cub highlights the growing threat these entertainment enterprises pose to tigers in the wild.
“By 16 weeks cubs are too big—they’re crawling and scratching and biting,” she says. “But there’s no legitimate secondary market for all those cubs that can’t be used any longer. They’re just disappearing.” She fears that the adults are being killed to satisfy surging demand in Asia for their bones, teeth, and other parts—an illegal trade that’s played a primary role in reducing tiger numbers from an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 a century ago to as few as 3,500 today.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org . Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.