An undercover law enforcement operation has resulted in charges being filed against 12 people in the Southland and Las Vegas who were allegedly trafficking endangered or illegal wildlife or products made from them.
Called Operation Cyberwild, the investigation was a joint effort by the enforcement arm of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and volunteers from the Humane Society of the United States.
Agents recovered live endangered fish, protected migratory birds, and all kinds of products made from endangered animals, including an elephant foot, skins from a tiger, a polar bear, a leopard and other animals, plus some boots made of the skin of threatened sea turtles.
“This particular operation lasted just a couple of weeks, and during that time, they were able to make 13 buys, or busts, if you will, resulting in charges being filed against 12 individuals and the confiscation of over 46 live wild animals and items made from wildlife parts,” said Scott Flaherty, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Southwest region in Sacramento.
“I think that that number, and the short period of time, really speaks to the depth of the problem. I think that if the investigation were to go beyond that time, certainly more would have been found,” he added.
Animal welfare and environmental groups have been clamoring for this kind of action for years. Paul Todd, program manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, points out that his organization did a massive investigation of Internet trafficking in 2008 and produced a report called “Killing by Keystrokes,” which looked at Internet auction and sales sites like EBay, Upatsix.com and Craigslist. This report found thousands of listings for potentially illegal sales over a six-week period, most of them involving elephant ivory and most of them on EBay. As a result of the report, EBay decide to ban all ivory sales from its auctions.
IFAW, however, cannot arrest people for violations it may have found.
“We’re a nonprofit, we can’t go out and bust people,” Todd said, adding: "They kind of scoured the Internet the way we do in our investigations, then busted perpetrators in a rapid-fire way. All credit goes to the special agents and the team who thought of this and took it to that next level. We’re hoping the USFWS will see fit to do more of this.”
Flaherty says this kind of operation is part of the service’s normal scope of duties, and is ongoing.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles filed charges Jan. 6 against nine people and the county district attorney's office filed charges against three. The charges are all misdemeanors.
Federal agents arrested George Lovell, 49, of Las Vegas, for allegedly selling a pair of loggerhead sea turtle boots for $1,000 to undercover operatives.
Other defendants, who were served the equivalent of a ticket and must appear in court, included Lisa Naumu, 49, of San Diego, who allegedly sold an $8,000 leopard-skin coat after offering three such coats for sale on Craigslist. Victor Northrop, 48, of Henderson, Nev., allegedly sold a tiger-skin rug for $10,000 after listing it on Craigslist.
Ascertaining whether or not a sale is illegal can be tricky. In the case of a live animal or a creature clearly on the endangered species list, like a tiger, the lines are well demarcated. But elephant ivory, for instance, can be sold legally, depending on its age and provenance, and sellers don’t often volunteer documentation that the ivory was obtained legally.
Todd notes that these busts give a peek into the size of the problem.
“They were just looking at Craigslist and some open websites like that. It wasn’t exactly clandestine chat rooms and things. So if you times that by the whole country times maybe six months or a year, and then if you mix in the harder-to-know things like elephant ivory, you’re talking about a pretty robust Internet-based wildlife trafficking operation in the United States.”
He added: “At least in that region of the country, a lot of people are probably thinking twice about putting their illegal wildlife products up on line and for sale.”