SAN DIEGO (CN) – Federal authorities charged a California teen Thursday with smuggling a Bengal tiger cub he claimed was a cat into the United States from Mexico.
Luis Eudoro Valencia, 18, a Perris, California, resident, drove into the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego early Wednesday morning with a passenger who was hiding a Bengal tiger cub between their legs on the floor of the car.
Valencia was sent to secondary inspection because his Chevrolet Camaro was missing its license plates and agents could not identify the vehicle identification number, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. A Border Patrol agent shined a flashlight into Valencia’s car, revealing an animal lying on the floor of the passenger side of the vehicle.
“The inspector asked if the animal was a tiger. The passenger advised that it was not a tiger but just a cat,” according to the complaint.
Valencia’s passenger then produced paperwork from Aeromexico cargo showing the tiger was shipped on Aug. 22 from Mexico City to Tijuana, and another document which indicated no health certificate was needed for the animal.
“The paperwork falsely stated that the cargo did not include a species covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which would then require documentation,” according to the complaint.
All tigers are protected under the Endangered Species Act and require a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit to be imported in the United States. Bengal tigers are native to India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. There are only 2,500 Bengal tigers left in the wild, according to the World Tiger Recovery Project.
The tiger was later transported to the San Diego Safari Park where a biologist confirmed the animal was a Bengal tiger. Its street value in the United States is $1,500, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Valencia was later interviewed by agents and told them he was in Tijuana on Aug. 21 and saw a man walking a “full-sized” tiger on a leash and asked him about it. The tiger owner then offered to sell Valencia a cub for $300, according to the complaint.
The man told agents he wanted to bring the tiger home to keep as a pet, according to the complaint.
But prosecutors say the tiger cub purchase wasn’t quite as spontaneous as Valencia claimed. Agents found photos of the tiger on Valencia’s phone dated Aug. 18, as well as photos of two other tiger cubs and an adult tiger, according to the complaint.
When pressed about the photos, Valencia told agents he had started communicating with the seller last week and that he went to Mexico on Aug. 18 to meet the seller and then returned Monday to pick up the wild animal, according to the complaint.
The teen was released on a $10,000 bond.
Valencia faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine if convicted. He is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 5.