Handout/NSW Police
Some of the 257 lizards seized by police in New South Wales during the course of the investigation.
CNN  — 

Police in Australia have dismantled what they believe is a smuggling ring that was attempting to export native lizards and reptiles worth more than 1.2 million Australian dollars ($800,000) to Hong Kong.

Three men, aged 54, 59 and 31, and one woman, aged 41, were arrested in Sydney as part of the investigation, New South Wales Police said in a statement published Monday.

Handout/NSW Police
The lizards were worth an average of 5,000 Australian dollars ($3,350) each.

The operation began in September 2023, when nine packages containing 59 live lizards were stopped en route to Hong Kong.

All four suspected members of the group are scheduled to appear in court in January.

Handout/NSW Police
A suspect is taken into custody in Sydney.

“Police will allege in court the criminal group were catching live lizards and native Australian reptiles to export for profit to Hong Kong,” the police statement said.

“The animals were kept in poor conditions and bound in small containers when they were packaged to be sent,” it added.

Police said officers found a total 257 lizards and three snakes during the investigation, both in packages and in addresses used by the group.

The reptiles “were taken to various zoos and wildlife parks for examination by a vet before being released back to the wild,” the statement added.

Police estimate the lizards were worth around 5,000 Australian dollars ($3,350) each, making a total of approximately 1.285 million Australian dollars ($860,000).

The police didn’t say why the lizards were being allegedly smuggled, but Hong Kong has long been considered a hub for illicit wildlife trade due to its busy port and status as a gateway into mainland China.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Hong Kong also says that “exotic pets are becoming increasingly popular” in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

“Rare species of turtles and tortoises, snakes, lizards, parrots, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, scorpions and many others, are traded as pets,” the charity says on its website.