In the summer of 2017 U.S. law officials searched a car with new plates on the Mexico border. There were two young men in the car, and they watched as the law officers went about their duty. And then the border cops made a dangerous discovery that led to headlines all round the world.
Officers from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are constantly hard at work on the U.S. border with Mexico. The job of the federal agents is to ensure that no person or thing untoward crosses into American territory. Indeed, as representatives of the largest agency in the Department of Homeland Security, the men and women of CBP are always on the lookout for anything suspicious.
At present, of course, the biggest task facing these law officers is tackling the threat of terrorism. However, the agents are also responsible, among other things, for stopping drug smuggling and clamping down on illegal immigration. So with all that in mind, it is safe to say that policing the country’s borders is not generally a dull job.
But nevertheless some CBP shifts are more memorable than others. And in late August 2017, one group of officers took part in a search that they will no doubt be talking about for years to come. That is because the contraband item they came across in the line of duty was so unusual that the agents weren’t sure what to do with it.
It all started at about 1:30 a.m. on August 23, 2017. A Chevy Camaro drove up to the Otay Mesa entry point of the Mexican border just south of San Diego, California. At the wheel was an 18-year-old male, and beside him in the passenger seat was a 21-year-old man. So up to this point, everything seemed fairly normal to the border cops. However, it would not stay that way for long.
Following an initial check, a CBP officer decided to refer the Chevy Camaro and its occupants for a secondary search. This procedure offers the officials the chance to conduct a more lengthy and thorough search of a vehicle. And it is just as well they did because the officers discovered something unbelievable in the passenger-side footwell.
There, lying on the floor of the car at the passenger’s feet, was a Bengal tiger cub. As the name indicates, these magnificent animals are native to Asia. Furthermore, they are the most numerous of all tiger species in the world – despite having a population of just 2,500. Consequently, they are officially classified as endangered and are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red” list.
And now here was one of their number at a Californian border checkpoint. Given the rarity of the creature, the discovery must have perplexed the CBP officers. After all, it is not every day that you find a wild animal riding in a car. However, as a testimony to their cool-headed capabilities, they handled their encounter with the little Big Cat with great professionalism.
“CBP officers are often faced with unusual situations,” Pete Flores, director of field operations for the San Diego branch of the federal agency, said later in a statement to the press. “The CBP officers at the Otay Mesa port of entry met the challenge head on and assisted in preserving the life of this endangered species.”
For the animal’s own safety and the safety of others, the border cops seized the tiger cub and placed the youngster into an animal crate. He was to remain there until representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could check him out. Meanwhile, the driver of the Chevy Camaro soon found himself similarly confined. Yes, authorities arrested the man and transported him to a nearby correctional center to await his charge.
The Camaro driver with the unconventional passenger was later identified as Luis Eudoro Valencia from the small city of Perris in Riverside, CA. The young man was released with a $10,000 bond but was ordered to appear in court at a later date. Authorities charged Valencia with smuggling the tiger cub.
The U.S. is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – or CITES for short. This international treaty protects the trade of endangered plants and animals around the globe. Any wildlife listed by CITES therefore cannot be legally imported unless a proper permit is presented.
In response to the tiger cub story, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prepared a media statement. It said, “All species of tigers are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and are protected under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.”
“To legally import an endangered species into the United States requires a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” the statement continued. “The importation must be accompanied by a Declaration Form 3-177 filed with Fish and Wildlife. According to the complaint, the defendant [Valencia] lacked the required permit and did not file the required declaration.”
In the meantime, officers from the Fish and Wildlife Service arrived at Otay Mesa and took the tiger cub into their custody. And to ensure that the kitten received the expert care it needed, they enlisted some outside help. They subsequently took the cub along to the professionals at San Diego Zoo Global.
Speaking to the arresting officers, Valencia claimed that he bought the cub for $300 in the border city of Tijuana in Mexico. The seller, Valencia said, had a full-sized tiger on a leash and was walking the animal down the street. However, after buying the animal and traveling back to the States, the young man “failed to declare the cub,” according to officials.
In the end, Valencia pleaded not guilty to his smuggling charge at his arraignment date. The case has yet to come to trial but if he is convicted, Valencia could face a whopping $250,000 fine or even a hefty 20-year prison sentence. So the matter of smuggling a little kitten into the U.S. was being treated as a very big and serious deal indeed.
The tiger cub CBP officers seized subsequently found a home at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Interestingly, the attraction has had previous experience taking in smuggled animals. Indeed, more than two decades ago, the animal facility took in a tiger named Blanca after she too was intercepted on the Mexican border.
But animal professionals estimated that this latest addition was just four months old. So, in the knowledge that tiger cubs thrive better if they are raised in pairs, staff placed the kitten with a five-month-old Sumatran tiger. This particular cub had been transferred from the Smithsonian National Zoo after his mother had rejected him.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park also ran a competition to find the rescued cub a name. In the end, voters opted for Moka, which means “chance” in Urdu as spoken in Bengal. The public can now see the young animal on display with his new brother at the park. So Moka will live to teach generations of humans the wonders of Bengal tigers.