Exotic animal bust: Asphyxiated reptiles in stockings, plastic

Australia's answer to Joe Exotic, a licensed reptile keeper who kept more than 100 animals in a mini-zoo inside his Sydney home, has been jailed for five years for attempting to smuggle native and exotic animals out of the country to overseas buyers.

Zheyuan Qiu, 33, and his now estranged wife Ut Lei Lei, 30, have been convicted of 17 charges between them after being caught sending a myriad of packages to Asian buyers containing 45 native snakes, lizards and turtles stuffed into toy trucks and speakers.

One parcel held a venomous red-bellied black snake which could have endangered the life of anyone opening the parcel.

Their couple's attempted profitmaking crimes were foiled by alert Australian Border Force officials who intercepted 17 postal packages before they left the country.

 

Ut Lei Lei, 30, has been convicted of sending a myriad of packages to Asia-based buyers containing snakes, lizards and turtles. Picture: Natalie O'Brien
Ut Lei Lei, 30, has been convicted of sending a myriad of packages to Asia-based buyers containing snakes, lizards and turtles. Picture: Natalie O'Brien

But the ABF officers did not discover them in time to stop some of the animals dying from asphyxiation after being tied up and wrapped in stockings and plastic.

 

The reptiles were stuffed into toy trucks and speakers and some died from asphyxiation. Picture: The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Department
The reptiles were stuffed into toy trucks and speakers and some died from asphyxiation. Picture: The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Department

 

Qiu and Lei Lei were arrested by Environmental Crime Investigators from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment in January last year after a raid on their Belmore home where more than 105 reptiles, including lizards, snakes and turtles were discovered.

 

Zheyuan Qiu being arrested after Environmental Crime Investigators from The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment raided his home and found more than 100 reptiles. Picture: The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Department
Zheyuan Qiu being arrested after Environmental Crime Investigators from The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment raided his home and found more than 100 reptiles. Picture: The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Department

Joe Exotic is former an American zoo operator who shot to international attention on a Netflix series about his life titled Tiger King, and has now been jailed for killing tigers, selling baby animals with falsified papers, wildlife violations, and plotting to murder a rival.

Their case follows the sentencing last year of 26-year-old Buddy Pogmore to three years jail for similar wildlife smuggling offences and the jailing in 2019 of former rugby league player Martin Kennedy for four years following a two-year investigation by the Australian Federal Police and the Department into international wildlife trafficking and money laundering.

 

 

Ut Lei Lei leaving court after being sentenced to two years jail to be served as an intensive corrections order in the community. Picture: Natalie O'Brien
Ut Lei Lei leaving court after being sentenced to two years jail to be served as an intensive corrections order in the community. Picture: Natalie O'Brien

 

Operation Melville began when six packages were discovered bound for Sweden containing more than 40 native Australian lizards and 16 packages came in from Thailand containing more than 200 exotic animals and fish. The value of the animals and fish seized was estimated to exceed AU$500,000.

Qiu and Lei Lei pleaded guilty and both received jail terms for their part in the crimes which took place in from November 2019 to January 2020.

Local Court Magistrate Mark Marien sentenced Lei Lei to two years jail to be served as an intensive corrections order in the community. Qiu will have to serve two years and 10 months of his five year sentence before he is eligible for parole. The maximum penalty is 10 years jail and a $210,000 fine.

The crown prosecutor had argued the pair should be jailed as a powerful deterrent against the plunder of Australian wildlife.

The court was told Qiu had directed Lei Lei to send parcels to Hong Kong and Taiwan and to make a false declaration about the contents of the parcels and make up a fake name and address for the sender.

 

Zheyuan Qiu being arrested after Environmental Crime Investigators from The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment raided his home and found more than 100 reptiles. Picture: The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Department
Zheyuan Qiu being arrested after Environmental Crime Investigators from The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment raided his home and found more than 100 reptiles. Picture: The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Department

 

 

Over a period of three months they lodged the parcels at a string of post offices from Belmore to Enmore, Cabramatta, and Strathfield to be sent to addresses in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Qui came to Australia as a student in 2010 to study horticulture and is now a permanent resident.

The court was told he had a passion for small animals, obtained a reptile licence and kept dozens of cages in his home filled with snakes, lizards and turtles.

The court was told he was lowly paid and trying to support two families and wanted to support his father who was ill so he came up with the scheme to smuggle the animals to help pay for his father's medical expenses.

 

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment raided the home of Zheyuan Qiu and found more than 100 reptiles. Picture: The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Department.
The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment raided the home of Zheyuan Qiu and found more than 100 reptiles. Picture: The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment Department.

 

 

The "generous buyers" paid several thousand dollars into Qiu's parents' bank accounts in China for each "consignment" ahead of the animals being sent.

Magistrate Marien said his sentence took into account the aggravating features of the crime which were the undue cruelty and harm suffered by the animals.

Minister the Environment Sussan Ley said the details of this case are "horrendous and unfortunately all too common. "

"Native Australian reptiles are highly sought after overseas in what is a dangerously lucrative market supplying ventures such as overseas pet shops that exclusively sell Australian reptiles," she said.

Assistant Minister Customs Jason Wood said wildlife crime is one of the largest transnational organised criminal activities in the region.

 

 

 

Originally published as Exotic animal bust: Asphyxiated reptiles in stockings, plastic


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