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Riverside County teen accused of trying to smuggle tiger cub into U.S. from Mexico

A Riverside County teenager has been charged with trying to smuggle an endangered Bengal tiger cub into the country from Mexico, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

Luis Valencia, 18, of Perris, was charged with one count of unlawful importation of wildlife after agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection found the cub seated on the floor of his car during a vehicle inspection at the Otay Mesa border crossing Wednesday, according to a news release issued by the U.S. attorney’s office in San Diego.

Valencia and a passenger in the vehicle said they had nothing to declare when they were first approached by agents, according to a criminal complaint in the matter. But an agent noticed the tiger cub seated between the passenger’s legs at a secondary inspection station, court records said.

Valencia initially told investigators that he purchased the cub earlier in the week from a man who was walking a “full-sized tiger on a leash” through the streets of Tijuana, according to the criminal complaint. He said he planned to keep the tiger cub as a pet at his home, according to the complaint.

Under further questioning, Valencia admitted that he had been in communication with the man who sold him the tiger in advance of his trip to Mexico, according to the complaint. There was also a compartment in Valencia’s vehicle that had been specifically built to house the cub, the complaint said.

Valencia said he paid $300 for the cub. Bengal tiger cubs in the U.S. can be sold for at least $1,500, according to the complaint.

If convicted, Valencia faces up to 20 years in federal prison, prosecutors said. He was released on $10,000 bond and is due in court next month.

All species of tiger are protected under the Endangered Species Act. There are only 2,500 wild Bengal tiger specimens remaining on Earth, and that population is in decline, prosecutors said.

To import a tiger into the country, a person would have to obtain a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the news release. Valencia failed to do that, prosecutors said.

The cub was transported to the wildlife sanctuary at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park. Customs and Border Protection agents are working with the zoo to ensure the cub remains healthy, officials said.

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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