SAN DIEGO (CNS) - An 18-year-old Perris man was charged in federal court in San Diego with smuggling a Bengal tiger cub into the United States from Mexico, authorities said Thursday.
According to a federal complaint, Luis Eudoro Valencia drove into the Otay Mesa Port of Entry from Mexico on Wednesday in a 2017 Chevrolet Camaro with no license plates.
At the primary inspection area, Valencia and his passenger stated that they had nothing to declare from Mexico, authorities said. Due to issues with the vehicle identification number, the vehicle was referred to a secondary inspection area.
Using a flashlight, a Customs and Border Protection inspector saw an animal lying on the floor between the passenger's legs and asked if it was a tiger. The passenger told the inspector that the animal was not a tiger but just a cat, according to an affidavit filed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Eduardo Nieves.
Officials seized the tiger cub and it was taken to the San Diego Safari Park, where a biologist confirmed it was a tiger cub.
In an interview, Valencia initially stated that he was in Tijuana on Monday and observed an individual walking a full-sized tiger on a leash. Valencia told investigators that he asked about the tiger and the individual offered to sell him a tiger cub for $300 and the defendant agreed, saying he intended to take the tiger cub home to Perris to keep as a pet.
Authorities said Valencia denied having pictures of the tiger cub on his phone, but a search of that phone revealed numerous photos of three different tiger cubs, including the cub he had in his car at the border.
A message associated with the photos was dated Aug. 18, and Valencia admitted that he started communicating with the seller of the tiger cub on that day.
Valencia said he went to Mexico on Aug. 18, met the seller, then returned to Mexico on Aug. 21 to pick up the tiger cub.
Under federal law, all species of tigers, including Bengal tigers, are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
According to the World Tiger Recovery Project, there are only 2,500 wild specimens on earth and the population of Bengal tigers is decreasing. Based on previous investigations, Nieves said the market value of a Bengal tiger cub sold in the United States is approximately $1,500.
About 20 years ago, customs agents working at San Ysidro Port of Entry intercepted an attempt to smuggle a tiger cub out of California and into Mexico. The animal, christened Blanca, wound up living out its days at San Diego Safari Park, CBP officials said.
Valencia was released after posting a $10,000 bond and was ordered to return to court Sept. 5 for a preliminary hearing.