Lizard Smuggling Ring Busted Hiding Reptiles In Milo Tins, Toys, Deep Fryers
Following a 10-month investigation, authorities have busted an illegal wildlife smuggling syndicate attempting to sell the animals on the black market overseas.
Three search warrants were carried out on Thursday morning in Warren, Oakleigh and Clayton in Melbourne's southeast.
It comes after the smuggling operation was first discovered in June 2018 by Australia Post and Australian Border Force, with more than 150 live reptiles detected and rescued since.
With a street value of around $550,000, these animals were found hidden in -- among other hiding spots -- toys, powdered chocolate tins, chip containers, deep fryers and rice cookers.
In some cases animals were taped "from head to toe," Manager Intelligence and Investigations unit with the Vic Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning Iain Bruce said.
"Other times they've been stuffed into socks and restricted, and very much jammed into these objects," he said.
The syndicate was attempting to send the animals to China and Hong Kong as part of the pet trade.
"This is a very disturbing case," Minister for Environment Lily D'Ambrosio said in a statement.
"Reptiles have been taken from the wild and treated completely inhumanely -- all in the pursuit of financial gain by a gang of criminals."
Among the species of lizard rescued were blue tongues, King Skinks, Water Dragons, Goldfield Shinglebacks and various types of Geckos.
Overseas, a blue-tongue lizard can go for around US$2000. From there, the price only goes up for rarer species.
On Thursday, 12 gecko lizards were seized, six of which were unfortunately dead. Another six reptiles located during previous investigations also died, either from suffocation or trauma.
Two cars and a large quantity of cash, estimated more than $400,000, were also seized at the properties.
The raids come after a lengthy joint investigation by the DELWP, Australian Border Force and the Federal Department of the Environment and Energy.
In the past month, an additional three warrants were executed in Melbourne and Werribee, with two people arrested and charged for alleged illegal possession and disposal of protected wildlife.
Most of the surviving reptiles have since been rehoused with local sanctuaries, schools and zoos, while some will be sent to the Australian Museum in a bid to develop tools to better detect animals being trafficked across the border.
Unlike other areas of crime, there are no human victims of illegal wildlife trading to report offending, leaving the industry to operate largely undetected in the dark, Bruce said.
"We're just touching the iceberg in relation to what's actually going on here," he said.
"Part of our operation wasn't just to identify offending and then undertake warrants. It was to understand the full extent of the crime that's occurring here."
Investigations into the smuggling syndicate are ongoing.