An illegal reptile smuggling ring has been busted by authorities during raids in Narre Warren, Oakleigh and Clayton on 7 March.
The syndicate had been attempting to send Australian lizards to China and Hong Kong, concealed in toys, chip containers, powered chocolate tins, deep fryers and rice cookers.
The raids were part of a lengthy investigation by Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Australian Border Force and the federal Department of the Environment and Energy.
More than 150 lizards – with an estimated street value of more than $550,000 – have been seized during the joint operation since June 2018.
In the past month, three other search warrants were executed in Melbourne and Werribee, in which two people were arrested and charged with illegal possession and disposal of protected wildlife.
Most of the seized lizards will be homed at local sanctuaries, schools and zoos.
Some will be sent to the Australian Museum to develop tools to detect trafficked animals.
Twelve smuggled reptiles died from suffocation or trauma as a result of their ordeal.
Under the Wildlife Act 1975 there are various penalties associated with taking, disposing of or being in possession of protected wildlife, with a maximum penalty of $38,685 and/or 24 months imprisonment.
Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 the maximum penalty for cruelty is $40,297.50 and/or 12 months imprisonment.
Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said it was one of Australia’s biggest wildlife trafficking investigations, resulting in multiple arrests.
“This is a very disturbing case, where reptiles have been taken from the wild and treated completely inhumanely – all in the pursuit of financial gain by a gang of criminals.
“Such sickening abuse of animals will not be tolerated in Victoria and I commend all the agencies involved for detecting this cruel and illegal activity and taking strong action against the perpetrators.”
Any information to Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000, or crimestoppersvic.com.au/report-a-crime.