Claremont businessman indicted on ivory smuggling charges

The owner of a Claremont doughnut shop was indicted Tuesday on federal charges that he bought endangered-elephant ivory on EBay and smuggled it into the United States from Thailand three years ago.

Moun Chau, 50, of Montclair was charged with conspiracy and the illegal importation of wildlife, according to the indictment, which cited violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The alleged smuggling was discovered in November 2006 when authorities found four African elephant tusks in a shipment purported to be toys. With rare exception, the U.S. prohibits the importation of any ivory, federal officials said, because endangered elephants often are killed for their tusks to make jewelry, statues and other items.

“Buyers in the United States and elsewhere in the world are creating this market for ivory and feeding the poachers in Africa who are killing these animals,” said Erin L. Dean, who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement office in Torrance.

Fish and wildlife agents tracked the shipment of tusks to Chau’s business in Claremont, where they later seized dozens of ivory pieces. Samples of those items and others from undercover ivory purchases in Thailand were sent to Fish and Wildlife’s forensic lab in Ashland, Ore., for DNA testing, which determined they were from endangered African elephants, Dean said.

A joint investigation by her agency and the Royal Thai Police, with help from animal welfare groups such as the Freeland Foundation, led to the indictment of Chau and his alleged accomplice in Thailand, Samart Chokchoyma, 36.

Besides conspiracy and smuggling, Chokchoyma was charged with several counts related to his alleged illegal sale of ivory via the Internet.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Bayron Gilchrist declined to put a dollar value on the alleged transactions, which occurred before EBay banned ivory sales in January 2009 -- after an animal welfare group reported that the Internet auction was listing thousands of items taken from endangered species.

Chokchoyma also faces charges in Thailand, where he was arrested Nov. 16 and accused of smuggling African ivory. Thai police this week arrested two other suspected ivory dealers, the Freeland Foundation said Tuesday.

If convicted, Chau faces up to 25 years in prison. He has not been arrested and will be summoned to appear for an arraignment next month in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, officials said. Chau did not respond to messages left at his business Tuesday.

Chokchoyma could spend up to 53 years in prison. Gilchrist said prosecutors will monitor the Thai case before deciding whether to seek his extradition.

Tuesday’s indictment reflects a fraction of an illegal trade in wildlife and endangered-animal products that, by various estimates, generates up to $20 billion a year.

“More than 10 metric tons of African elephant ivory have been seized in Southeast Asia during 2009 alone,” Freeland Foundation said in a news release. “However, until this case, there had not been any arrests of ivory traffickers in the region.”