Venomous king cobra snakes packed into potato chip cans. Asian songbirds bound and stuffed into a suitcase. And a Bengal tiger cub driven in a vehicle from Indiana to Ventura County. These are just some of the ways people have smuggled protected wildlife into Southern California.

Recently, US Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced that 16 people have been charged and about 200 animals seized in recent months as part of “Operation Jungle Book,” the largest wildlife trafficking sweep in Southern California history.

“We are combating an ever-growing black market for exotic animals,” acting US Attorney Sandra R. Brown said in a statement. “An insatiable desire to own examples – both living and dead – of these vulnerable creatures is fueling this black market.”

The service held a news conference at its Torrance facility, Los Angeles, to raise awareness and to try to deter wildlife smuggling. Operation Jungle Book also included trafficking in coral and bald eagle feathers, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times (via the Tribune Content Agency).

Assistant US Attorney Amanda Bettinelli, who worked on the investigative team, said authorities have seen a recent uptick in wildlife trafficking. Operation Jungle Book, which was conducted between May and early October, was an effort to crack down on such crimes.

The number of shipments of animals “we get on a weekly basis here in the Port of Los Angeles is pretty shocking,” Erin Dean, resident agent in charge of the service’s Southern California region, said. “It’s all about money.”

Sarah Hernandez from the Los Angeles Zoo shows a rescued Hyacinth Macaw during the Operation Jungle Book press conference.

Smuggled Songbirds

Despite the threat of prison time, smugglers take the risk because of a lucrative black market, authorities said. In May, Kurtis Law, 50, of Orange County, was arrested on allegations of smuggling 93 Asian songbirds, worth nearly US$100,000 (RM408,000), on a flight from Vietnam.

Bound and stuffed into boxes in suitcases, only eight of the birds were still alive by the time they were discovered at Los Angeles International Airport. This week, Law was ordered to serve one year in federal prison.

Gayle Simpson, 33, of Inglewood pleaded guilty last month to smuggling five monitor lizards, worth an estimated US$2,000 (RM8,152), from the Philippines. Authorities intercepted the package, which was addressed to Simpson’s son and labeled “speakers.”

Two of the lizards were dead and another had a crushed foot. Simpson faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Tiger cubs smuggled into the US and seized at the Mexico border by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Recently, a Florida man was arrested on charges of falsifying documents to purchase a Bengal tiger from an Indiana wildlife sanctuary in 2014 and transporting it to Ventura. Nicholas Bishop, 27, who also goes by “Nick the Wrangler,” said he had bought the tiger for rapper Tyga.

The tiger cub, three to six months old at the time, was first spotted in a Ventura backyard, before it was moved to Piru, authorities said. The tiger had been held in a crate. If convicted, Bishop faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Protected Arowana fish were among the 200 confiscated animals from Operation Jungle Book. In one instance, authorities noticed a leaking package labeled “Porcelain Herbal Pots” and found eight of the fish in bags of water inside porcelain pots.

In some parts of Asia, the protected Arowana fish are thought to be symbols of luck and prosperity. They can fetch thousands of dollars in the underground market.

On display at Friday’s news conference were several confiscated animals (though not all were from Operation Jungle Book), including a hyacinth macaw, a ploughshare tortoise and two tiger cubs.

After their interception, confiscated animals are placed with accredited zoos and sanctuaries, such as the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos and the Turtle Conservancy in New York.

A US Fish and Wildlife officer holds a smuggled ploughshare tortoise from Madagascar, one of the rarest tortoises in the world.

Malaysia Also Affected

Global wildlife smuggling affects Malaysia, too. The United Nations Environment Programme valued the global illegal wildlife trade business at between US$10bil to US$23bil (RM41bil to RM97bil) a year in 2016.

After narcotics, human trafficking and weapons, wildlife crime is the fourth most lucrative illegal business in the world. The illegal wildlife trade operates the same way illegal drugs and weapons are dealt with – by dangerous international networks ­­­– linking across the globe notes WWF-Malaysia.

The increasing demand for exotic animals driven by factors such as greed, alleged medicinal value (never truly medically proven) and cultural reasons (particularly in Asia) have contributed to the massive increase of wildlife crimes.

“Poaching is one of the key reasons the Sumatran rhino was declared extinct in the wild in Peninsular Malaysia in 2015,” laments Dr Dionysius Sharma, Executive Director/CEO of WWF-Malaysia.

The Malayan tiger is also critically endangered by poaching and smuggling. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, 2,241 animal traps and 1,728 illegal campsites were found by NGOs working in three priority tiger habitats adds Dionysius.

Between January 2016 and March this year, 60 active wire snares were deactivated and removed. Even when arrests are made, the ones who are usually caught are not the real masterminds behind the operations. Wildlife crime prevention requires international collaboration.

US Fish and Wildlife agent Erin Dean stands beside a stuffed and smuggled rhinoceros.

Wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic states that the primary motivating factor for wildlife traders is economic reasons. This ranges from small scale local income generation to major profit-oriented businesses. It is easy to obtain the highest financial returns at very minimum risks.

The US State Department (USSD or Foreign Ministry) underlines in its website that this illegal trade has devastating impacts beyond pushing species to the brink of extinction.

It also threatens security, undermines the rule of law, fuels corruption, restricts economic development and contributes to the spread of disease and robs local communities of their natural resource base. The multifaceted nature and global scale of this problem calls for strategic cooperation at global, regional, national and local levels.

The USSD notes, “As the United States is one of the world’s major markets for both legal and illegal wildlife and wildlife products, the US government has an important role to play in addressing wildlife trafficking.”