PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Two Malaysian men could face 25 years in prison after being arrested and charged with smuggling orangutan skulls and other animal parts into the United States.
Fish and Wildlife agents arrested Eoin Ling Churn Yeng, 35 and Galvin Yeo Siang Ann, 33, just after they arrived in Portland Friday. The Fish and Wildlife Service claims they have been smuggling prohibited animal parts into the United States for a decade.
They mailed animal parts of protected species to the United States, in violation of the Endangered Species Act and The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a Fish and Wildlife agent said in a Dec. 1 affidavit in support of a criminal complaint and arrest warrant.
The investigation began when a routine search of an international package turned up the mandible of an endangered hornbill bound for an Oregon home in 2013, Fish and Wildlife agent Paul Montuori said in the affidavit.
The Oregonian then told Montuori about other shipments of restricted animal parts he had bought from Ling and Yeo’s website, Borneo Artifact. The informant told Montuori he had bought two orangutan skulls, a turtle shell, a Macaque skull and a primate skull, according to the complaint.
The informant paid Ling and Yeo $14,000 for 16 shipments of protected animal parts over six years, the complaint states.
Operation Pongo turned up a series of 2011 emails between Ling, Yeo and the confidential source, in which Ling and Yeo admitted that their business was illegal, according to the complaint.
Pongo is the name of the orangutan genus.
“Some distressing news today,” the confidential source wrote. “I received an envelope in the mail that informed me that the Macaque Skull you sent has been seized and is subject to forfeiture. Their claim has to do with acquisition of endangered species and – if the US Fish and Wildlife Service decides to – they can turn it over to a Federal court and the Attorney General’s Office. That is not good news for me since I am the rightful owner. So, my first question is: ‘Have you had this happen before with one of your US clients?’ ‘And, what did you do to help’? If it has not happened before, will you help me? I can ABANDON the skull but I am not sure what legal action the US Govt will take against me. OR, I can petition for remission and stop the forfeiture. The best way to proceed – even though I have no idea what I am doing – is to justify the skull acquisition based on the fact that I collect these types of cultural artifacts. That would be where I would need your help. They (US Dept of Interior) have only given me a few days to respond. Please help me as soon as possible.”
Yeo replied: “I am sad to hear this but very important: never admit that you have interest in this thing and buy it, because it is an offence for buying this item! easiest way is to say you have no idea who sent that to you and you totally have no intention of owning it, buying it or interested in it. u can say that it could be some friends that you made during your vacations and they send this to you as friendship and gifts but you have no idea who that person is because you have visited many places and made many friends from there. if you admit that you have interest more investigation will come … so please avoid this … after all, anyone can send you anything! some can send to a wrong address as well and you happen to be the receiver. please let me know if there is anything i can help … also the parcel was sent without any sender’s address, so no one will know who is sending if you never admit that you are the buyer … dont admit that you want this item. also this is normally confiscated and abondoned only and nothing will happen, if u dont admit that you are the buyer i can assure you that this will easily abondoned and nothing will happen, if you dont admit that you are buying … if you have any question please get back to me first before you give any details to custom, i can help u further.”
Later, the confidential source wrote again to Ling and Yao.
“I called the Wildlife Inspector (assigned to this case) in California this morning,” the informant wrote. “I told him I didn’t know anything about the item (which I hated to do because it is not the truth). He said to check the box that says ‘another entity holds an interest in this property,’ make the same comments, sign the bottom and send it in. That’s what I did. I asked him who sent me this package and he said he didn’t know but likely someone in Thailand. I don’t know what happens next. … probably nothing. I would think that this incident would not warrant them turning this over the US attorney generals office. I just don’t expect that to happen. I have attached the form for your reference.”
According to the complaint and affidavit, Yeo wrote back: “dont worry, please dont call the custom anymore, it should not be any problem, because this is just a small problem for them, they have many important one to deal with, dont need to trigger them anymore, so far, 1 out of 10 skulls have problem, but all the skull they will seize without doing anything. this is a very slight offence for them and they have got many more important one to deal with.”
Ling also replied to the informant, according to the affidavit: “I am sorry to hear about the skull episode. There is not a chance these officers would know what age and ritual/cultural values/artifacts/heritage of these objects (skull). The skull sent to u is old, not a recently obtained skull and carved as a gift, no no buddy. Customs as random as what Galvin tried to explain do sometimes get nosy and dig a little deeper to see what objects goes into their country, in this case it’s a skull and it does alarm those who only sees it as a slaughtered animal rather than an artifact trophy. I would be more than happy to do a reasonable discount for your next purchase, let me know and I will discuss with Galvin on the best possible way for all of us yea?”
One year later, the informant made another purchase from Borneo Artifact, according to the complaint, this time buying a macaque skull and bear claws.
In June this year, the informant let Montuori use his email address to order a babirusa skull, a Langur skull and a pair of whale bone statues, according to the complaint. The babirusa is also known as a pig deer. It has long, curly tusks.
Montuori says he asked Ling why the website referred to the whale bone statues as “organic bone from the sea.”
“Ling said the whale bones were purchased from Indonesian islands and explained, ‘I’ll be in hot soup (or worst gunned down by FBI) and removed by ebay if stated they are whale bones on ebay,'” the complaint states.
Describing the hornbill skulls for sale on the website, Ling allegedly told Montuori: “Hornbills too are endangered and I do not want to attract attention for.”
Ling allegedly told Montuori that Borneo Artifact employed three “runners” who lived in Borneo and one who lived on the island of Sumatra.
Ling said the runners often showed up with more animal parts than he could buy.
“There are many runners in this business, each and everyone of them are EAGER to find and please his master,” Ling wrote in an email. “It all comes down to money, which can be a bad thing when they come with TONNES of stuff when u only seek for a few.”
In July, Montuori says, he bought three orangutan skulls, four helmeted hornbill skulls, one rhino hornbill head, one babirusa skull, one primate skull and one dugong rib from Borneo Artifact, for $4,800.
Yeo recommended using the “unregistered postal system” to ship the animal parts, according to the complaint, and told Montuori to keep his and Ling’s identities secret if there was a “problem.”
Yeo and Ling sent the animal parts in four packages over the next few weeks, according to the complaint.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service labs confirmed the authenticity of the animal parts, Montuori says.
Agents arrested Ling and Yao on Friday when they arrived in the United States to meet an associate. The complaint was filed under seal so as not to tip off Ling and Yao before their arrest. It was unsealed on Monday.
Ling and Yeo are to be arraigned on Jan. 6 on federal charges, punishable by up to 25 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
They are represented by Fidel Cassino-DuCloux, who did not reply to a request for comment.
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