U.S. Border Patrol agents have a pretty tough job. These men and women regularly put their lives on the line in defense of their country, and more often than not, they’re forced to make difficult, life-changing decisions on the fly. With so much to keep them on their toes, you can bet these individuals have seen and done it all.
However, even years of experience couldn’t prepare two Texas officers when they came across a suspicious-looking piece of luggage left behind at the border. As they opened the mysterious duffle and peered inside, they instantly fell to their knees.
Texas’ Rio Grande border is no stranger to smugglers, and over the years, border agents have seen their fair share of strange cargo. But in August 2018, some ‘cargo’ that tried to make it across the river was far more extreme than anyone was prepared for.
While out on patrol, two agents from Brownsville, Texas, spotted three individuals lingering on the Mexican side of the river. The trio tried to look inconspicuous, but the sharp-eyed agents saw right through their charade.
The officers approached, and as they did, the trio knew they’d been made. Caught red-handed trying to cross the border, the individuals high-tailed it back to Mexico, leaving their possessions behind.
It was a typical find for a border agent: water jugs, shoes, and a few hastily packed bags. But there was one piece of luggage that the officers found themselves returning to again and again — a black duffel.
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Unable to shake their suspicions, the agents unzipped the bag and tossed the flap open. One peek inside told them everything they needed to know about the attempted border crossing. This wasn’t a bid for a new start: it was a smuggling.
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And what was it that was being smuggled? Well, none other than a tiger cub, likely just a few months old. The animal lay unconscious in the duffle, but, fortunately, it was alive.
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Without a moment to lose, the agents grabbed the young tiger and carried him. They then made a b-line for the nearest town, hoping they weren’t too late to save the helpless cub.
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Feeling that a veterinary hospital wouldn’t be equipped to care for such an animal, the officers took the cub to Brownsville’s Gladys Porter Zoo. Hopefully, they figured, the wildlife specialists there could nurse the baby tiger back to health.
The cub was out cold when the zoo’s medical team finally got him onto the exam table, and they feared that the smugglers might’ve drugged the animal to sedate him for the trip. Luckily, they could stabilize him, and the little guy soon came to.
Not long after word of the cub’s discovery got out, Border Patrol communications director Irma Champa reported the tiger was “doing great” and was expected to make a full recovery. Once healed, the cub would be placed in a zoo.
But the attempted smuggling of tiger cubs like this one is something that the U.S., unfortunately, has become quite familiar with. All along the country’s southern border, exotic animal trafficking has become an epidemic over the last few decades.
“The illegal [wildlife] trade is pretty big business,” says Dan Crum, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent. “The U.S. is sometimes a destination and transit point, and the border along California and Mexico happens to be one of those flash points for trafficking.”
In fact, more than a quarter of the nearly 50,000 black market animal shipments seized at U.S. points of entry between 2005 and 2014 came from Latin America. Most of these shipments were comprised of birds and reptiles, but big cats like lions and tigers were also discovered.
Amazingly, the Brownsville recovery marked the first time in over 20 years that a live tiger had been discovered at this area of the border. Because tigers are relatively large, they’re much more difficult to smuggle — and worth that the much more to the buyer.
It’s also for this reason that tigers are smuggled primarily as cubs. Many wildlife experts believe that once a baby tiger has grown past a certain point, smugglers will simply dispose of them rather than bring them to market.
“By 16 weeks cubs are too big — they’re crawling and scratching and biting,” says Carole Baskin, founder of the Florida sanctuary Big Cat Rescue. “But there’s no legitimate secondary market for all those cubs that can’t be used any longer.”
This fear is especially prominent in Asia, where large numbers of adult tigers are killed every year to satisfy the demand for their teeth, bones, and other parts. A highly illegal practice, these killings are primarily responsible for the Asian tiger population’s significant drop to just 3,500.
Surprisingly, the U.S. currently boasts the world’s largest tiger population at around 5,000, according to the World Wildlife Fund. However, the vast majority of these animals are born in captivity, not smuggled into the country.
But for every handful of tigers in zoos and sanctuaries, there are plenty of big cats being kept in unsavory conditions by private owners. Some are even showcased in cruel roadside attractions, where tourists can pay to cuddle and take pictures with them.
Thankfully, measures have been taken across the country to put an end to the exploitation of animals. Following a 2017 sting dubbed “Operation Jungle Book,” 200 animals were rescued from this kind of abuse, including lizards, songbirds, and even a king cobra.
Yet while countries around the world are making a conscious effort to stop the trafficking of exotic animals, a large number still slip through the cracks. Even in a big city like Paris, exotic creatures can sometimes go undetected for months – even years – at a time.
For instance, in late 2017, videos and images surfaced online of a 24-year-old man abusing a wild animal he was keeping as a pet. In response, a number of activists contacted law enforcement to see if this man and his “pet” could be located.
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An investigation soon began, with authorities using the man’s posts to pinpoint his location. After weeks of searching, they tracked the man to an apartment in the French suburb of Noisy-le-Sec.
When firefighters arrived on the scene, they found the apartment deserted. However, when they explored further, they discovered a heartbreaking sight in the back room.
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There, huddled in the corner of a small cage, was a tiny lion cub. Judging by his size, this little big cat was no older than one year old.
But the saddest part of it all was the poor shape they found him in. The cub was severely emaciated, and the many cuts and bruises on his body confirmed the reports that the little guy had been severely abused.
Not too long after the bust, police officials managed to find and arrest the cub’s owner, who had bought the animal simply to show it off online. But with the cub’s abuser behind bars, what was next for the little lion?
After hearing the cub’s story, the animal rescue organizations Fondation 30 Millions d’Amis and Refuge de l’Arche decided to take him into their care. With their help, the little lion was transferred to the Natuurhulpcentrum in Belgium, a rescue center known for rescuing and rehabilitating big cats.
As the cub began to acclimate to his new environment, animal rescuers gave him a strong name to fit his story of strength: King. And, boy, did he grow to fit his name!
But as King began to outgrow his surroundings, it became time to seek out a permanent home for the young lion. And so, the animal welfare organization Born Free started a campaign to move King to his ancestral home: Africa.
According to Born Free, their plan was to move King to their Big Cat Rescue Centre at the Shamwari Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Here, King could frolic and play alongside other lions and lionesses that had been rescued.
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Once they had raised enough money to fund their mission, Born Free placed the now fully grown King in a cage ten times the size of the one he was first found in. It would be the last cage he’d ever be put in again.
On July 5th, 2018, King took his first ever plane ride to the London Heathrow airport under the care of Born Free’s expert team. Poor King was so nervous during the flight!
After transferring onto another flight (which is no easy task for a human, let alone a thousand-pound lion), King was finally on his way to his homeland. One short plane ride later, and King had arrived in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Lion World Travel
The final leg of the trip was completed by truck, with King’s large cage being pulled behind it. Though the plane rides had put a strain on poor King, it would all be worth it in just a few hours.
Lion World Travel
Finally, after traveling a total 6,000 miles from Belgium to Africa, King arrived at his new home at the Shamwari Reserve. The Born Free team was nervous at first about how King would react to his new surroundings…
As King stepped out into the winter sunlight, the young lion began to playfully leap through the grass. It was the first time he had ever seen grass before, let alone touched it.
Lion World Travel
Before King could continue exploring he caught sight of his new playmates Jora and Black, who were rescued from cruelty at the hands of a circus. They greeted King with a roar that left everyone with goosebumps!
Shamwari Game Reserve
Officially welcomed into his kingdom, King took off into the brush to join his fellow lions. After a day of play, exploration, and a meal fit for, well, a king, of course, King took to the shade for a well-deserved, long-overdue rest.
King remains at the Shamwari Reserve to this day, living in peace and freedom, just as all animals should be allowed to do. Check out the video below to relive King’s incredible journey!