A MAN has been convicted of smuggling an estimated €62.5 million worth of critically endangered baby eels from Spain to East Asia via the UK.
Gilbert Khoo, 67, from Parbury Rise, Chessington, was found guilty at Southwark Crown Court of six offences relating to the illegal importation and movement of the rare elvers, which command a high price in Asian markets.
UK Border Force officers found the European ‘glass eels’, known as Anguilla, concealed under a load of chilled fish at Heathrow Airport.
They were due to be exported to Hong Kong on February 15 2017.
It was the first such seizure ever recorded in the UK.
The live consignment, weighing around 200 kilos with an estimated value of at least €6.73 million on the black market in East Asia, had been transported from Spain to the UK.
The creatures have since been returned to the wild.
The issue of exporting glass eels to Asia has had the spotlight thrown on it by Europol campaigns.
Gangs based in Spain appeared to be at the centre of the criminal enterprise that is thought to have netted millions from the illegal export of what has been termed a critically endangered species from sources all across Europe.
Last year in Operation Lake the Guardia Civil, coordinated by Europol, arrested 16 people from four different organised crime groups.
One of the rings, based in northern Spain, brought glass eels from France to Spain and then sent them by taxi to Portugal.
Once in Portugal, the criminals put the eels into suitcases, ready to export them by plane.
Another crime organisation, based in Madrid, shipped higher quantities of glass eels declaring them as other types of fish, seafood and sending them later by air cargo.
The seized species had a market value of €600,000.
Spanish authorities estimate that the four criminal organisations under investigation may have made more than €6 million a year from the illegal operation.
In the British case, Khoo was arrested on February 23 2017 when he disembarked a flight from Singapore at Heathrow Airport.
Investigators found that Khoo would import elvers from EU states, hold them at a farm in Gloucestershire, then repackage and label them as ’chilled fish’ to be sent onwards to East Asia.
Elvers fetch more than 10 times the price on the East Asian black market than they would in the UK.
There they are considered a delicacy and demand is very high.
Due to their status as an endangered animal there are strict controls on their export.
NCA investigators estimate that in two years Khoo exported or had attempted to export 1,775 kilos of eels with an estimated value of €62.5 million on the black market.
Khoo is due to be sentenced at Southwark Crown Court on March 6 2020.
NCA Senior Investigating Officer Ian Truby said: “The profits to be made from illegally smuggling live eels to Hong Kong and the Far East are significant.
“But, the NCA are determined to protect vulnerable wildlife from criminals who wish to benefit financially.”