LOS ANGELES, California, July 11, 2013 (ENS) – A nationwide undercover operation aimed at disrupting the trafficking of protected wildlife on the Internet, today resulted in charges against six California residents for selling endangered species and animal parts through online sites such as Craigslist.
The charges were filed in United States District Court in Los Angeles this morning. They stem from an investigation dubbed Operation Wild Web, coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which involved investigators and prosecutors across the United States and in three Southeast Asian countries.
From August 8 through August 22 last year, about 70 Service special agents and conservation officers from state wildlife agencies across the country teamed up to investigate illegal online commerce in wildlife.
Agents from the National Park Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helped staff some of the 14 Wild Web Task Force groups operating in the United States. Investigators posing as buyers focused on endangered or protected wildlife, as well as invasive species that threaten the native fish species in the United States.
Operation Wild Web resulted in 154 “buy/busts” in the United States – 30 involving federal wildlife crimes and 124 for violations of state wildlife laws.
It also exposed online trafficking of live birds and tiger and leopard pelts in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, where wildlife officers simultaneously ran their own in-country Operation Wild Web task forces targeting illegal wildlife internet sales. Enforcement agency participation was coordinated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-Wildlife Enforcement Network, ASEAN-WEN.
“Our message is clear and simple – the internet is not an open marketplace for protected species,” said Edward Grace, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy assistant director for law enforcement. “State partners and our ASEAN-WEN counterparts were essential to the success of this operation, and that cooperation remains critical to disrupting wildlife trafficking on the web and elsewhere.”
Wildlife and wildlife products seized during Operation Wild Web included the pelts of endangered big cats such as Sumatran tiger, leopard and jaguar; live migratory birds; sea turtle shells and sea turtle skin boots; whale teeth; elephant ivory; migratory bird mounts; walrus ivory; and other items. The intercepted transactions involved more than $60,000-worth of wildlife contraband.
The defendants charged are:
Hanna Karim, 44, and his wife, Margarita Licomitros, 36, both of Huntington Beach, who are accused of selling a Sumatran tiger skin for $8,000 after the item was advertised on Craigslist. Karim and Licomitros are charged with offering an endangered species for sale, and, if convicted, each could be sent to federal prison for up to one year. Tigers are critically endangered throughout the world, with fewer than 500 Sumatran tigers remaining in the wild.
Rene De La Peza, 42, of Hacienda Heights, who is accused of selling a jaguar skin for $15,000 after advertising it on Craigslist. De La Peza is charged with offering an endangered species for sale and, if convicted, could be sent to federal prison for up to one year. Jaguars, the largest cat found in the Americas, have been listed as endangered for 40 years.
Michael Roy McIntire, 59, of Encino, who is accused of selling three migratory bird mounts in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. If convicted, McIntire would face up to six months in prison. All migratory birds, such as the birds involved in this case: a canvasback, a cinnamon teal and a mallard, are protected under treaties between the United States, Russia, Canada and Mexico, and even legally hunted birds cannot be sold.
Rodrigo Macedo, 29, of Hesperia, who is accused selling two Western scrub jays in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of six months in federal prison.
Lewis Keister, 42, a resident of Los Angeles and the owner of East Meets West Antiques, is charged with a felony offense of illegally trafficking wildlife for allegedly selling a pair of seal fur moccasins for $750 last August. The complaint affidavit also alleges that he sold three Native American dolls, one said to be made of whale bone, and three bags, one made of seal fur, to an undercover agent last December. If convicted of violating the Lacey Act, Keister would face a maximum possible penalty of five years in prison.
All six defendants will be summoned to appear in U.S. District Court on August 8.
Seven Operation Wild Web cases were charged in Thailand and Indonesia where animals and parts of animals, such as leopards, tigers, hornbills and Javan eagles were sold on the Internet.
Law enforcement authorities were assisted by several nonprofit organizations that donated resources to the operation, including the Humane Society of the United States, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Freeland Foundation. Forty trained volunteers from The HSUS helped law enforcement officials conduct Internet searches to uncover criminal activities.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO for The HSUS said, “The amount of wildlife available for sale via the Internet is staggering, and enforcement activities must increasingly concentrate on this arena of commerce if we are to protect wildlife from cruelty and maintain the viability of species. We applaud the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state fish and wildlife agencies, and U.S. Attorney André Birotte, Jr. for their continued commitment to protecting wildlife.”
“As a major platform for the illicit trade in wildlife, the Internet has become a dangerous place for animals,” said Jeff Flocken, North American regional director, IFAW. “Wildlife crimes are not only harmful to already endangered species, they also pose serious threats to national and global security.”
As part of Operation Wild Web, state and federal prosecutors across the country have filed over 100 criminal cases, most in California, Texas and Florida. Other Operation Wild Web cases have involved the illegal sale of a bear skin, a walking catfish and live piranha.