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.