An illegal reptile-smuggling ring operating out of Melbourne has been caught wrapping lizards in masking tape and wedging them into rice cookers, waffle makers and chip packets to be sold overseas.
Police have seized more than 150 lizards, with a street value of more than $550,000, that were intended to be sent to China and Hong Kong and sold as pets.
Twelve of the smuggled reptiles died either from suffocation or trauma.
The operation, first discovered in June 2018 by Australia Post and Australian Border Force, was found to have wrapped reptiles in aluminium foil or plasticine to try to avoid detection by X-ray machines.
Lizards were also concealed inside toys, deep fryers and powdered drink tins.
The smuggled reptiles had an estimated street value of more than $550,000.
Iain Bruce from Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning said the treatment of the reptiles was disgusting.
“The animals have been taped from head to toe in some cases with masking tape. Other times they’ve been stuffed into socks and restricted and very much jammed into these objects,” he said.
“When an animal has been stuffed into a sock and its airway restricted for that long a period of time, it’s extremely traumatic for the animals.
“For the officers that are lovers of wildlife to see them and have to unpack that and see them covered in their own excrement, not being able to breathe and some being dead, taking gasps of breath as they remove the tape, it’s just disgusting.”
Police carried out three search warrants in the Melbourne suburbs of Oakleigh, Narre Warren and Clayton on Thursday, seizing 12 lizards.
They say two people are set to be charged on summons.
‘A very cruel act’
Last month, three warrants were carried out in Melbourne and Werribee.
Two people were charged with illegal possession and disposal of protected wildlife.
Mr Bruce said one of the men also faces 121 charges of animal cruelty.
A large quantity of cash was found while police were carrying out the warrants.
“It’s around $300,000 to $400,000 … it just proves it’s a very lucrative activity,” Mr Bruce said.
“We understand that the value of the quantity of animals that have been trafficked that we are aware of is around $550,000, and that’s only what we’ve found.
“There’s profits to be made, but it’s a very cruel act.
“Wildlife trafficking is known as being one of the largest illegal commodities in the world. Different figures are bandied around — $50 billion to $150 billion per annum – so it’s a huge industry. We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg here.”
The smuggling operation received $2000 for a blue-tongue lizard.
Most of the rescued reptiles have been sent to sanctuaries, zoos and schools.