Increased Surveillance, Stiffer Penalties at Heart of Wildlife Trafficking Fight

WASHINGTON (DC) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Friday the $90 million the United States recently committed to combatting wildlife trafficking will pay for a multi-pronged program that includes increased surveillance at poaching hotspots and stiffer criminal penalties for those caught trafficking endangered and protected species.

Sessions made his remarks at a Justice Department in Washington, D.C. He first announced the Trump administration’s $90 million commitment at international anti-wildlife trafficking forum he attended in London earlier this month.

Speaking alongside members of the Justice Department’s counter transnational organized crime division, Sessions said the key to combating illegal poaching is to cut off the “flow of financing … to criminal benefactors” and deprive traffickers of their transportation route “on air, land and sea.”

There’s also the matter of blocking trafficking on the “dark net,” Sessions said.

But so long as poachers can flee law enforcement across physical borders in the real world, more must be done by authorities to make it “exceedingly difficult, if not impossible” for poachers in one nation to escape prosecution from another.

“It cannot be that criminals can continue their illegal activities and escape punishment by going to a country that won’t extradite them,” Sessions said.

Wildlife poaching and trafficking is a lucrative industry that rakes in roughly $23 billion annually across the globe.

Payoff for poachers is high but the legal consequences they face are relatively lax, according to Wayne Hettenbach, a prosecutor who oversees wildlife crime cases for the department’s environmental and natural resources division.

The best deterrent to a crime is a good sentence, he explained.

“Generally, the existing laws [around wildlife trafficking] are good and agents are great at putting investigations together but the actual sentences are less effective,” he said.

For example, a middle man caught in the trafficking of endangered species from Madagascar was recently recorded by agents during a sting operation in Pennsylvania.

The man was chatting with someone he believed was a prospective buyer of wildlife contraband, said Wayne Hettenbach of the DOJ’s Environmental Crimes Section.

“’I’ve been there in front of a grand jury with tears in front of a judge. I got busted … and the judge gave me two years of probation, no fine and that was endangered animals. The money that [court] cost me was less than the money I made doing things that put me at risk,’” Hettenbach said, reading from a portion of the sting audio transcript.

The Justice Department also hopes to confront the challenge of “making judges and juries care” about trafficked species as much as they might when someone is robbed at a bank or is a victim of terrorism, Hettenbach said.

“There’s no legal market for a kilo of cocaine but there is a legal market, in some places, for species to be trafficked,” he said. “You don’t have to prove someone knew it was illegal to traffic in a kilo of cocaine because that’s readily provable but the difficulty in stopping wildlife trafficking is proving knowledge and overcoming that hurdle.”

Another way the department hopes to address bad actors is by coordinating with the State Department to install legal liaisons in countries where poaching is prevalent.

For the first time ever the Justice Department is deploying a U.S. official known as a “regional resident legal advisor” to a location where trafficking threatens to wipe out a species of endangered Asian tiger.

The advisor, Mark Romley, will be stationed in Laos, Sessions said.

According to Transparency International, a global anti-corruption organization, there are hundreds of illegal tiger farms in Laos where big cats are slaughtered and exported to China for a tidy sum.

With the investment, Sessions said the department will work to unravel yet another complex aspect behind the wildlife trafficking trade: international corruption.

There is seemingly no limit on possible hurdles to be faced on that front, the attorney general explained.

Especially when one considers the vast number species that are plied on the market, said Dave Hubbard, special officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

“The U.S. is a destination for illegal wildlife trafficking, whether species are passing through U.S. borders or whether the exploitation of species originates in connections with U.S. banks where poachers conduct these illicit operations,” Hubbard said.

Bears, elk, deer, paddlefish, eels, reptiles, species from “the very charismatic to less charismatic” show up on the market – even cactus, Hubbard said.

“There is a massive amount of money involved and there’s smuggling, laundering and worse. You see here what you see in every other facet of a criminal organization,” he said.

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