LONDON: A seafood salesman was found guilty Friday (Feb 7) of smuggling an estimated 5.3 million critically endangered baby eels from Europe to East Asia via Britain.
Gilbert Khoo, 66, was convicted at London's Southwark Crown Court of six offences relating to the illegal importation and movement of the rare elvers.
British border force officers found a live consignment of baby European eels, originally from Spain, hidden under a load of chilled fish at London Heathrow Airport.
They were due to be exported to Hong Kong on Feb 15, 2017.
The 200kg consignment had an estimated value of at least £5.7 million (US$7.4 million) on the black market in East Asia, where they are a delicacy in high demand.
The eels were later safely released back into the wild.
After arresting him when he returned to London on a flight from Singapore, investigators found paperwork showing that Khoo, from Chessington, southwest London, had been smuggling the rare creatures between 2015 and 2017.
Khoo imported elvers from European countries, held them at a farm in Gloucestershire, southwest England, then repackaged and labelled them as "chilled fish" to be sent onwards to East Asia.
The National Crime Agency estimates that in those two years, Khoo exported or had attempted to export 1,775kg of eels with an estimated black market value of £53 million.
"The entire operation run by Khoo to trade in these critically-endangered animals was illegal from start to finish, and there is no doubt his sole motivation was money," said NCA senior investigating officer Ian Truby.
"The profits to be made from illegally smuggling live eels to Hong Kong and the Far East are significant.
"We are determined to do all we can to stop the global black market trade of endangered species."
Stocks of European eel (Anguilla anguilla) have plummeted 90 per cent in three decades as development has encroached on the wetlands and dammed the rivers it needs to grow and feed in.
Experts fear smuggling of the lucrative fish is pushing it towards extinction.
European eels have been protected since 2009 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
At the time, CITES estimated that about half of the eels caught in Europe are exported to China, Japan and South Korea to be grown in fish farms.
Khoo is due to be sentenced on Mar 6.