Orangutan Smuggler Tied to KGB Gets Prison Term
An orangutan smuggler was sentenced Friday to 13 months in prison in a KGB-linked case that aroused the indignation of conservationists around the world.
In a last-minute twist, prosecutors refused to recommend a lighter sentence for Matthew Block, 31, questioning whether he had fully cooperated with the government as required by his plea bargain.
Britain’s Prince Philip and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall are among more than 1,000 people who have written the judge demanding tough treatment for Block.
U.S. District Judge James Kehoe also fined Block $30,000 on a felony count of conspiracy to violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act and an international treaty barring the trade of protected animals.
The case began when six baby orangutans were found stuffed in a crate at the Bangkok airport in February, 1990, part way through a circuitous journey that was to end in Moscow. The animals were packed in so tightly that one was found upside down. Four of them died.
Block, owner of Miami-based Worldwide Primates Inc., was charged last year with arranging the shipment and agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges. Under that plea, he could have avoided prison altogether. But Kehoe rejected the agreement after letters poured in protesting the deal as too lenient.
Block began cooperating with prosecutors, helping indict his partners and going undercover to catch Mexican zoo officials trying to buy a gorilla illegally.
Prosecutor Guy Lewis charged that the orangutans’ ultimate destination was a Moscow animal-trading agency, and that Block was approached by Russians with KGB connections in 1988 to arrange the illegal sale and shipment.
Defense attorney Michael Metzger told the judge that the animals were to be used for AIDS research.
But conservationists say Eastern Europe is a growing transit point for smuggling endangered species around the world. They testified that the orangutans probably were taken from their mothers in the jungles of Indonesia, a task that often involves killing the parent.
Experts believe that fewer than 32,000 of the gentle, red-haired apes exist in the wilds of Borneo and Sumatra, and the estimates keep shrinking.
“I hope this sentence will send a message to deter other smugglers and to protect endangered species around the world,” said Cathy Liss of the Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute, who testified at the two-day hearing. “And I hope it will save the lives of some orangutans.”
The defense contended that Block didn’t know the animals’ origin and that they could have been bought from private owners.