(CN) – A Queens man who shipped the skulls of endangered lions and tigers to a wholesale buyer in Thailand was sentenced Wednesday to nine months in federal prison.
Though he was nabbed after buying a tiger skull from undercover agents in April 2016, Arongkron “Paul” Malasukum also spent the year prior exporting 68 packages containing the skulls and claws of various big cats designated as endangered and protected species.
Worth approximately $150,000, the teeth and claws were turned into jewelry by associate of Malaskum’s once they were exported to Thailand.
Malasukum admitted as part of his 2017 plea deal that he he paid the undercover agents to act as his straw buyers because he expected out-of-state purchases to attract the attention of law enforcement. In addition to buying the tiger skull from them in 2016, Malasukum used the agents to purchase lion skulls from an auction house in Texas.
“Malasukum provided the undercover agents with cash and directed them on which items to bid and ultimately win,” the Justice Department said in a statement. “After the purchases, Malasukum shipped the tiger and lion skulls from Texas to his home in Woodside, New York. From New York, Malasukum shipped the skulls to Thailand for sale to a wholesale buyer.”
Now 42, Malasukum pleaded guilty in November to a single count of wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act. It was U.S. Magistrate Judge Kimberly Priest Johnson who accepted the plea, but U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant III, in Sherman, Texas, sentenced Malasukum on Wednesday to nine months in prison.
A press release from the Justice Department notes that there are two subspecies of lions that are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
“Panthera leo melanachaita, found in eastern and southern Africa, is listed as threatened, and Panthera leo leo, found in India and western and central Africa, is listed as endangered,” the press release states. “There are only about 1,400 members of the Panthera leo leo species remaining; 900 in 14 African populations and 523 in India. The size and distribution of these populations, population trends, and the severity of the threats to those populations are factors leading to Panthera leo leo being listed as endangered under the ESA. The subspecies Panthera leo melanachaita is believed to number between 17,000 -19,000 and is found across southern and eastern Africa. Although Panthera leo melanachaita populations are increasing overall, research has indicated there are population groups that are in decline due to ongoing threats; as a result, the subspecies Panthera leo melanachaita is listed as threatened under the ESA.