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Animal trader jailed, fined for trying to smuggle into Singapore endangered species hidden in food packaging

SINGAPORE — The co-owner of an exotic animals shop in Johor Baru, Malaysia was sentenced to two months’ jail and a fine of S$9,600 on Thursday (June 4), after pleading guilty to importing 22 illegal animals such as poison dart frogs and an Argentine tegu into Singapore.
Mitchell Edberg Li Heyi, 31, a Singaporean, also kept a California kingsnake — a non-venomous species — in his home.

In taking it to a buyer, Mitchell Edberg Li Heyi packed an Argentine tegu, a type of large lizard, into a plastic container and placed it in a cereal box.

In taking it to a buyer, Mitchell Edberg Li Heyi packed an Argentine tegu, a type of large lizard, into a plastic container and placed it in a cereal box.

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SINGAPORE — The co-owner of an exotic animals shop in Johor Baru, Malaysia was sentenced to two months’ jail and a fine of S$9,600 on Thursday (June 4), after pleading guilty to importing 22 illegal animals such as poison dart frogs and an Argentine tegu into Singapore.

Mitchell Edberg Li Heyi, 31, a Singaporean, also kept a California kingsnake — a non-venomous species — in his home. 

When he was nabbed at Woodlands Checkpoint in November last year, the authorities searched his car and discovered the creatures kept in separate plastic containers with no ventilation.

These included two leopard geckos, a sugar glider, 18 poison dart frogs of three different species and the black-and-white tegu — a type of large lizard. 

The poison dart frogs and Argentine tegu are endangered, while licences are required to legally import or keep any of the animals in Singapore.

Some of the live animals uncovered and seized from Mitchell Li's car. Photo: Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.

Thirteen of the frogs were destined for a Singaporean customer, Jonathan Wong Kai Kit. He was fined S$6,600 in April for abetting Li to import the amphibians into Singapore, in order to keep them as pets. 

Various types of poison dart frogs are among the most toxic animals in the world.

Li pleaded guilty to seven charges under the Animals and Birds Act and the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act. These include failing to take reasonable steps to ensure that the animals were conveyed in a manner that did not subject them to unnecessary suffering.

Another 23 similar charges were taken into consideration for sentencing.

As he was unable to pay the fine, he will serve another four weeks and four days’ jail.

District Judge Adam Nakhoda also ordered him to pay S$10,900 to the National Parks Board (NParks) for expenses in housing the endangered creatures. 

Li told the court through his lawyer, Mr Tiah Kiang Choon, that he will serve two more weeks behind bars as he cannot pay that amount either.

KEPT THEM IN BISCUIT TINS, CEREAL BOX

The court heard that Li co-owned the Exotics Hub store in Johor Baru. He took orders from Singapore customers, collected the animals from suppliers in Malaysia and smuggled them across the Causeway.

In the wee hours of Nov 10 last year, he tried to drive through Woodlands Checkpoint but was caught by an immigrations officer with the animals in his car.

Li had placed the animals in individual plastic containers before putting the frogs and geckos in two separate sealed biscuit tins, while the tegu was placed in a breakfast cereal box. He then kept them there for at least five hours.

Frogs and geckos hidden inside a biscuit tin. Photo: Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.

Wong had ordered 13 of the frogs — six Anthony’s poison arrow frogs, three green-and-black poison dart frogs and another four dyeing poison dart frogs.

Another individual ordered the tegu for S$600 and paid a transportation fee of S$100. Li told the customer that he would deliver the animal to him at his residential address in Singapore.

Another man ordered two sugar gliders — a small marsupial native to Australia — from Li for S$180 and paid half that amount as a deposit. Court documents did not state why Li brought in just one sugar glider.

Ms Wendy Tan, prosecutor for NParks, said that one of the frogs died that day, while the others either eventually died or had to be put to sleep due to a fungal disease.

Li had to be “held at a higher standard” than a layperson as he was in the business of selling exotic animals, Ms Tan added.

Mr Tiah said in mitigation that his client did not receive high profits from his business — a few thousand dollars at the most.

The lawyer added that Li would have needed the animals to be alive and in good condition, given his business, but caused pain and suffering to them due to his lack of knowledge and “inadvertent error”.

Li worked as a private-hire driver but this was not enough to support his family, Mr Tiah said. 

“He seized the opportunity out of desperation to earn money to support his family and ensure that his daughter could continue receiving medical treatment,” the lawyer told the court.

For each charge under the Endangered Species (Import and Export Act), Li could have been fined up to S$50,000 for each species, jailed for up to two years, or both.

Related topics

animal abuse smuggling dart frogs Johor Baru court crime

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