Columbian Cartel Drug Smuggler Turned Wildlife Trafficker Convicted by Nevada Jury

Edward Levine, from California, was found guilty following a trial by jury in a federal courtroom in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Levine, who in the 1980s had been indicted and served time in prison for being involved with Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar to smuggle cocaine into the United States, was convicted for selling horns from black rhinos.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the horns are sold for high prices and used for libation cups, ornamental carvings, and alleged Asian medicinal purposes.

Between 1970 and 1992 rhino populations declined by more than 90% in Africa, and by 1992 only 2,000 rhinos survived in 7 countries.  All five species of rhinos are endangered.

“We have charged about 60 subjects from Operation Crash and have convicted those that pled guilty,” said Tim Santel, Special Investigations Unit supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.   “This was the first case to go to trial in front of a jury.”

Operation Crash, a six-year undercover investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement Special Investigation Unit, has resulted in the conviction of more than 32 people of illegally trafficking rhinoceros horns from Africa. The investigation and arrests involved more than 140 law enforcement officers executing search warrants in 13 States.  Successes in 2013 included the arrests and indictments of several other individuals (including Chinese and U.S. antiques dealers) who were operating a second large-scale rhino horn and elephant ivory smuggling network.

Out of all of the investigations in Operation Crash that resulted in admissions of guilt or plea bargains, Levine's has been the only trial.

If there is ever any doubt regarding legal charges, when a case goes in front of a jury that is the defense attorney’s opportunity to bring out any doubts or questions, and the finding of guilt by a jury provides satisfaction for those involved in long hours of investigations.

Levine was found guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, which dates back to the early 1900s to protect wildlife in the United States and prohibit the sale and movement of illegal wildlife across state lines.

For many years, crimes involving wildlife were not treated as serious crimes, but they are involved in a lucrative business tied to organized crime and have led to dwindling populations of many species of wildlife, including african elephants and rhinos. 

Wildlife authorities, in the United States and in Africa, hope that these arrests and convictions will send a strong message that there will be a price to pay for those who are profiting from trafficking in rhino horns and elephant tusks.

Academy benefits U.S. and the fight against “the same bad guys” Illegally Trafficking Wildlife

DENVER - Naimah Aziz oversees inspections and investigations of live wildlife and wildlife products arriving in the busiest wildlife port in the United States. More than 35,000 shipments come through her jurisdiction, which covers John F. Kennedy International Airport, La Guardia International Airport and the United States Postal Service International Mail Facility.

In her second year as an assistant coach for the International Conservation Chiefs Academy, Aziz sees how the academy benefits participating African nations, state wildlife officials, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials such as herself.

Niemah Aziz

Niemah Aziz

“Africa is a big source nation and we are a big consumer nation of illegally trafficked wildlife,” she says. The relationships she’s developing with wildlife officials in 17 African nations as a result of the academy are invaluable.

 “To have a point of contact in these nations is very helpful,” says Aziz, supervisory wildlife inspector in the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement in Valley Stream, N.Y.

The FWS Office of Law Enforcement will  be able to reach out to contacts made at the academy on specific questions regarding their regulations and the wildlife species and products coming from their countries. That’s important given so many different regulations, so many protected species (roughly 5,800 animal and 30,000 plant species protected by CITES), and the escalation in illegal wildlife trafficking. The monetary value of such crime has risen an estimated 26 percent to $91-258 billion today compared to $70-213 billion in 2014, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL.

Sam Friberg, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife wildlife law enforcement attaché stationed in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, said the academy is benefitting future international efforts to combat wildlife trafficking.

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“It was great to be here and interact with the countries, hear some stuff on what we need to work on that I hadn’t heard before and watch the countries talking,” Friberg told academy participants in Denver. “We are seeing the same bad guys running around. 24/7, call me anytime. I’m there to support you.”

Ed Newcomer, the USFWS wildlife law enforcement attaché stationed in Gaborone, Botswana, said fostering communications between the countries is proving to be one of his most important functions and the academy helps strengthen his ability to do that.   

“In Africa, everything is about relationships,” Newcomer says. “If you’re not trusted, you are not going to get very far.”

Sharing problems and possible solutions

For Jim Gale, special agent in charge of USFWS’s special operations division, the academy is a chance to share U.S. experience and resources in conservation law enforcement and to gain the same from visiting African officials.

“There are so many similar problems,” he says.  “It gives you a fresh look at how to approach some of them.”

USFWS seizes a lot of native species and live wildlife that smugglers are trying to take out of the United States, turtles and tortoises among the most popular. “The rarer the species the more interest they have,” Gale says.

USFWS has conducted training overseas for 25 years to aid in combatting international crime; in more recent years, executive orders by the Obama and Trump administrations have expanded USFWS efforts as well as those involving more and bigger U.S. departments and resources, he says.

The academy and USFWS’s new attaché program placing wildlife law enforcement agents in embassies in China, Africa, Peru, and Mexico are examples of the deeper U.S. commitment as international wildlife trafficking is exploding.

The academy brings all of the links in the chain together in one place. U.S. state wildlife officials gain a global perspective on wildlife trafficking.   African wildlife officials see how the U.S. does wildlife management at the state and federal level “and how we are successful, how we all work together,” she says. They also get to spend more time together, cementing relationships so they can work together better on solving this transnational problem.

“The conversations are very different this year,” Aziz says. “I’m hearing more empowering questions – instead of them talking about using the U.S. forensics lab, they are asking, ‘how can we get our own lab.’ They are using the course to solve their own problems.”

Operation Crash: Stopping a Network of Illegal Wildlife Traffickers in United States

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More than 38 people have been convicted of illegally trafficking rhino horns from Africa resulting in more than $2.1 million in fines, $5.6 million in restitution and 438 months in federal prison as a result of “Operation Crash,” conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tim Santel, Special Investigations Unit supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Nashville, Tennessee, provided an overview of the more than six-year undercover investigation that, so far, has charged more than 50 people.

Named “Crash,” a term for a group of rhinoceros, the covert operation began in 2011 when FWS agents learned about increasing rhino poaching in 2009 and 2010.   People were attempting to purchase rhinoceros horns that are used either as decorative libation cups or ground into a powder for aphrodisiacs sought in Asia.

“Once we started looking into it, we realized that it was a big crisis,” Santel said.  “We wanted to put the focus on the rhino which was heading to disaster.”

Between 1970 and 1992 rhino populations declined by more than 90%, and by 1992 only 2,000 rhinos survived in 7 countries.  All five species of rhinos are endangered.

Some of the libation cups made from the keratin of a rhino’s horn are worth up to a half-million dollars.   Many libation cups were made in the 1800s for ceremonial functions and their high values can now exceed the cost of illegal drugs, such as heroin, and are being sought as status symbols by newly wealthy young people in southeast Asia.  With a limited supply of the old cups made from horns, rhinos are being illegally poached today to provide cups for new collectors.

Raw horns were being sold for $5,000 to $30,000 per pound, and carved horns up to $250,000.   An organized crime syndicate out of Ireland was involved in the purchase of illegal horns, and thefts of rhino horns from museums in Europe.

The rhinoceros is on the Endangered Species list and is in danger of becoming extinct.  Recorded poaching kills reached a high of 1,215 in 2014, and since (after Operation Crash started arresting people and putting them in prison) have been going down slowly following the undercover investigation.

“The investigation spanned the entire United States and is still going on,” Santel told 42 African conservation officials attending the International Conservation Chief’s Academy (ICCA) with their American counterparts to build relationships to help them fight illegal wildlife trafficking that is decimating rhinos and elephants.

What began as a small case turned into the largest FWS investigation in the history of the United States, involving digital technology and undercover surveillance, search of luggage at airports, covert operations, informants, and work with foreign partners in order to apprehend violators who knew what they were doing was illegal.

Tim Santel, Special Investigations Unit supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, led a six-year undercover investigation of illegal trading of rhinoceros horns that has led to $2 million in fines, and $5 million in restitution.

Tim Santel, Special Investigations Unit supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, led a six-year undercover investigation of illegal trading of rhinoceros horns that has led to $2 million in fines, and $5 million in restitution.

Santel said that undercover work is necessary in these types of cases because they need the evidence in order to get convictions in court, and prove that the violators knew what they were doing.

“Sometimes an undercover operation is the only way to get the documented evidence that you need,” Santel said.

Why would U.S. agents be interested in illegal sales of wildlife horns and tusks in Africa?  Because the money and illegal wildlife crossed U.S. borders, U.S. presidents Obama and Trump have issued executive orders to combat illegal wildlife trafficking, and the killings could lead to extinction of rhinos and elephants in the wild of Africa within the coming decade.

A video that Santel showed of a baby rhinoceros trying to get milk from its dead mother, which had been killed and its horn hacked off by poachers, put an exclamation mark on the reasons to end the senseless killing of this endangered species.

“We want to help save the rhino, one of my favorite animals, from the crisis that it currently is in,” Santel said.  “We are interested in all wildlife, but especially those big iconic species.  Because if we save a rhino, it gets everybody talking and it also will help save many other smaller species. “

The operation involved four investigations for:  sale of raw rhino horns; sale of carved rhino horns; smuggling; and unlawful rhino hunting by U.S. hunters.  Some U.S. hunters were going to Africa to shoot a rhino without a legal hunting license, and the outfitter would keep the horn and sell it.

The investigators used subpoenas, search warrants, and undercover surveillance operations to obtain information showing records of purchases, shipments and possession of illegal white and black rhino horns and libation cups.

By February, 2012 the investigators had the information and documentation they needed and the investigation changed from covert to overt.  More than 140 USFWS special agents and conservation officers in some states used search warrants to seize evidence, including numerous rhino horns, over a million dollars in gold and cash, that would later be used in court.  Violators were charged with violations such as mail fraud, conspiracy, violations of the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act.

“In the last five years we have charged over 52 people and have 38 convictions,” Santel said.  “Just because some people live in foreign countries, doesn’t mean that they won’t be caught.  Many are being brought back to the United States and are now waiting in jail waiting to be convicted.”

The operation and subsequent convictions has resulted in adding the white rhino to the Endangered Species list, some states enacting bans on sale of rhino horns and elephant ivory, and Congress strengthening laws on illegal trafficking.

Santel notes that President Trump signed an executive order on February 9, 2017 that included wildlife trade for investigating transnational criminal organizations.

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The money that results from confiscation of illegal funds can be sent to Conservation Funds and some proceeds were used to purchase land in Kenya to help preserve the rhino, where a baby black rhino was born recently.

Some work on Operation Crash is still continuing, including work that special agents are doing stationed in overseas countries, as several people are still awaiting trials in the United States.

Santel and his team involved in Operation Crash were selected to receive the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America People’s Choice Award in 2016.  Known as the “Emmy’s of Government Service,” the People’s Choice Award was voted upon by the public and recognizes excellence by government employees.

Santel, Jim Gale (FWS special agent in charge of the Southeast Region), Ed Grace (FWS acting assistant director of law enforcement), and Dave Hubbard (special agent for international operations) were honored at a banquet in Washington D.C.

When the team received the award, Daniel Ashe, former Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that, “Wildlife trafficking is one of the most horrific and immediate threats to global biodiversity, and has the very real possibility of wiping some of the world’s most stunning and beloved creatures, such as rhinos and elephants, from the face of the Earth forever.”

“This is a global problem, but America plays a significant role since much of the illegal trade occurs within the United States, transits across our borders or involves American citizens,” Ashe said. “Ed Grace's leadership of Operation Crash has resulted in tangible and significant results, putting key figures in the shadowy world of rhino horn smuggling and black market trading behind bars, and creating a real deterrent for those who might otherwise see these activities as low risk.”

This work by the FWS special investigation unit emphasizes that it is important to stop illegal wildlife trafficking and shows the success and impact that highly trained investigators can make to help endangered wildlife species.

International Wildlife Crimestoppers: Engaging Communities To Deter and Apprehend Poachers

Lewis Rather

Lewis Rather

National Conservation Training Center, Shepherdstown, West Virginia--- Lewis Rather, retired Texas Game Warden with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, has no use for poachers.

“Poaching is very personal to me, it is stealing from every one of you and from me,” he told 42 African conservation officials attending the International Conservation Chief’s Academy (ICCA) to help build relationships and help fight illegal wildlife trafficking.

Following his retirement from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, after 35 years in wildlife law enforcement service, Rather became Executive Director of International Wildlife Crimestoppers, a 501(c) (3) non-profit corporation that helps to stop poaching wherever it occurs.  The organization originally began in 1997 in seven states, and now works internationally helping to reduce illegal wildlife trafficking by engaging communities in deterring and apprehending wildlife poachers.

The organization partners with conservation agencies and organizations to support the sustainable use of natural resources, and deter poaching around the world.  Its mission is to reduce the illegal take (poaching) of the world’s fish and wildlife resources through the exchange of information with anti-poaching organizations. “We all need to work together against poachers.” Rather said. 

The major emphasis of the organization is information, education, and apprehension.  People can call in with information on violations that then will be passed along to the agency handling enforcement of fish and wildlife laws.

Lieutenant Wayne Saunders, a 22-year veteran of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and former president of International Wildlife Crimestoppers, described how important it is for a game warden to develop a network of contacts with local people in the community.

“By building a network it allowed me to learn about who the poachers were, and that is essentially what Operation Game Thief does.  It helps provide information on poachers,” Saunders said.  “It is a network that provides information on poachers, and we want to expand the reach of this network – to a global scale.”

Operation Game Thief is an anti-poaching program that can be run in any state.  Operation Game Thief works alongside International Wildlife Crimestoppers to provide information that helps game wardens do their jobs effectively.  Times have changed and law enforcement needs to also change and adapt, and Saunders said that Operation Game Thief and International Wildlife Crimestoppers can help to give law enforcement critical, timely and accurate information on wildlife poachers.    

Each state has some community-based information-gathering tool to receive information on wildlife violations.  Sometimes it is an (800) number, sometimes a telephone tips hotline, or a Facebook page or texting.  Sometimes Saunders said that some of the best cases come from information provided by friends or ex-spouses.

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Operation Game Thief can be implemented either by a state natural resource department or by a non-profit conservation organization.  “We create an effective public relations campaign and pay out cash rewards,” Saunders said.  “Informants are allowed to remain anonymous.”

The amount of the payout depends on several factors, including whether the violator has had a prior conviction, the number of citations issued, the amount of the fine imposed by the courts, what civil restitution is required for the wildlife harvested illegally, and the involvement of the informant.

One of the tools used by the New Hampshire Department is to have a travelling trailer that contains a “Wall of Shame,” displaying mounted animals that were taken illegally.  The trailer is taken around the state to different events, and often draws the interest of young people.

One of the points of emphasis is youth education.  The program specifically reaches out to youth in order to have them understand the importance of wildlife laws, and the harm poachers do to wildlife.

More information on these programs can be found at:  www.wildlifecrimestoppers.org and www.operationgamethief.org.

Northeast Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs Association Celebrates 75 years

On Monday, October 2, 2017, the Northeast Conservation Law Enforcement Chiefs Association (NECLECA) held their annual meeting in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania at Trout Lake Conference Center. This marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the inception of this organization.  For three days in August, 1942, the various law enforcement chiefs of fish and game agencies from the northeast states met to form an organization to enable them to formally discuss items of mutual interest.  The states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia were elected into membership.  At the first meeting, items of discussion included training, the sale and transportation of deer, undercover methods, cause and remedy of hunting incidents and equipment issues. 

During the most recent meeting, all the states mentioned above, except Ohio, were in attendance along with the State of Virginia and agents from the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement.  While the profession of a conservation law enforcement officer has expanded and become more challenging in the past 75 years, protecting the nation’s natural resources is still our core function.  During the current meeting of NECLECA, the chiefs heard presentations on traditional issues such as hunting related shooting investigations, exotic fish and wildlife sales, but additionally equipment discussions have developed into issues such as an in-depth training on body worn camera issues. 

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The new president of NECLECA, Major Chris Cloutier from the Maine Warden Service, stated “the purpose of the organization is to encourage and promote better law enforcement cooperation among the member states, exchange views and techniques and discuss problems relative to fish and wildlife law enforcement.  This statement was written 75 years ago and it still hold true today.  While the objective of conservation law enforcement is to protect fish and wildlife our officers now enforce boating and marine fisheries laws, perform search and rescue operations and have homeland security responsibilities. Our officers are the most dedicated, well trained and passionate of any law enforcement profession.”