A seafood salesman who smuggled more than £53 million worth of endangered live eels out of the UK has been given a two-year suspended prison sentence.
Gilbert Khoo transported millions of the rare eels from London to Hong Kong between 2015 and 2017.
The 67-year-old moved them by hiding the animals underneath chilled fish, but was caught after Border Force officers found 200kg of them at Heathrow – the first seizure of its kind in the UK.
Judge Jeffrey Pegden QC, who also told Khoo to carry out 240 hours of unpaid work for the community, said: “In my view you played a leading role in this country in what was a large commercial operation driven by others, the purchasers abroad, where the desire for the glass eels was abundant.”
Hearings to retrieve the proceeds of crime will take place in the future.
The eels are the subject of strict export controls because they are endangered.
Khoo was found guilty of three counts of failure to notify movement of animals and three counts of evasion of a prohibition or restriction on the export of goods at Southwark Crown Court in February.
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said he smuggled more than five million elvers over the two-year period, which were estimated to be worth £53 million in east Asia.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) released a photo of Khoo holding two gold bars and its senior investigating officer Ian Truby said: “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.
“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.”
Khoo, from Chessington, Surrey, kept the live eels in a barn in Gloucestershire after importing them from countries within the EU.
He would then repackage them and export them to Asia to be sold on the black market, where the NCA said eels can fetch more than 10 times the price they would in the UK.
The Guardian has reported that European eels are mainly flown to China, where they are used as a substitute for a Japanese eel species that is in decline.
Marion Longford, unit head of the CPS Specialist Fraud Division, said: “Khoo was trading these animals purely for a financial gain.
“He had no regard for the controls in place for trading endangered European eels which are vital to safeguard animals increasingly at risk of being wiped out completely.”
He added: “The impact that these crimes have on our environment and our communities cannot be understated, why is why we’re committed to building cases against offenders and ensuring they’re held to account for their actions.”