For millions of years, sharks were at the top of the food chain. By spreading nutrients and absorbing carbon, they keep marine ecosystems in balance, from. But today, sharks and the ecosystems are in grave danger.

Nearly 100 million sharks are killed every year according to the United Nations and almost a third of shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction. The declining shark population could lead to undesirable consequences in marine ecosystems, such as the collapse of commercially and ecologically important fish populations as well as contributing to global climate change.

 
 

Shark fins are targets for fishermen because they sell for a high price and serve as a symbol of status in Chinese culture. They are used in a popular dish called shark fin soup, which has a long history of being favored by Chinese emperors who thought it had medicinal benefits and represented a victory against powerful sharks. That belief is unfounded but has not faded.

Many fishermen practice shark finning, a brutal practice of catching a shark, pulling it onboard a boat, cutting its fins off and tossing the still-living shark back overboard. Unable to swim properly and bleeding profusely, the sharks suffocate to death or die of blood loss.

But it’s not just sharks that face a brutal fate.


Within poaching circles, it is said that a kilo of rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold, making the animals a prime target for poachers. Rhino horn was used in traditional Chinese medicine, but increasingly common is its use as a status symbol to display success and wealth.

Poachers are now being supplied by international criminal gangs with sophisticated equipment to track and kill rhinos.

HSI Seattle Special Agent Kyle Maher knows firsthand how brutal the poachers can be when removing a rhino’s horn.

“While in Africa years ago, we came across a rhinoceros with its face sliced off,” he said.

Frequently a tranquilizer gun is used to bring the rhino down, before its horn is hacked off, leaving the rhino to wake up and bleed to death, painfully and slowly. The rare few that survive their encounters with poachers are often left with horrific gunshot, axe or machete wounds.

Maher and his colleague, HSI Special Agent Robert Patterson, recently helped bring two wildlife poachers to justice.

HSI Seattle’s Border Enforcement Security Taskforce and HSI Washington D.C.’s Global Investigations Group concluded a multi-year investigation with the arrest and 11-count indictment of two foreign nationals from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The investigation centered on two people who previously conspired to send multiple shipments of bulk elephant ivory, pangolin scales and rhinoceros’ horn to Seattle from the DRC.

“We found them and started talking to them. We then started sending them money and they started sending us the product. They eventually accepted our invitation to come over to Seattle,” Maher said.

During the face-to-face meeting near Seattle, an HSI special agent posing as the chief buyer negotiated with the smugglers to facilitate the purchase and movement of an entire shipping container filled with wildlife-related contraband.

“We had previously been offered multiple tons of ivory if we were willing to buy in bulk. At the breakfast meeting we eventually came to an agreement to make a significant purchase,” Maher said. “And then we told them that we would take them to meet the rest of the investors. That's when Rob [Patterson] put the handcuffs on them.”

In close collaboration with the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa, HSI provided key intelligence to a DRC taskforce led by the DRC National Parks Security (Corps en charge de la sécurisation des Parcs Nationaux) who within 12 hours executed multiple raids seizing 2,067 pounds of raw and processed ivory along with 75 pounds of pangolin scales that the DRC valued at approximately $3.5 million.

Wildlife Demand

At the core of illegal wildlife trafficking is a rapidly expanding demand for a variety of products around the world: bushmeat; ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine; exotic pets; jewelry, trinkets, and accessories such as chess sets; furs for uses ranging from coats to traditional costumes; and trophies.

Wildlife trade is regulated by the United Nations' Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which currently has 170 member countries.

The Lacey Act also protects wildlife, fish and plants that are illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold. Initially enacted in 1900, it only applied to a narrow range of plants indigenous to the United States and did not prohibit trade in plants taken in violation of foreign law. However, in 2008, the Lacey Act was amended to include a prohibition on trade in plants and plant products, such as timber and paper, harvested in violation of international law. This landmark legislation constituted the world’s first ban on trade in illegally sourced wood products.

There are many different estimates of the value of illicit wildlife trafficking worldwide. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, unreported and unregulated fisheries trade alone are estimated to be between $4.2 billion and $9.5 billion per year. Illicit wildlife trafficking is estimated to be between $7.8 billion and $10 billion per year, and illegal timber trade is estimated as much as $7 billion per year.

Combining these numbers, all illicit wildlife trafficking, including fisheries and timber, comprise the fourth largest global illegal trade after narcotics, human trafficking and counterfeit products.

And this continues to grow as international criminal networks engaging in drugs and human trafficking get more involved to supplement their income.

“A lot of times where we start with the lower-level facilitators and shippers, you know there's this whole supply chain of organized crime,” HSI’s Harbin said.

Why should we care?

Wildlife trade threatens the local ecosystem and puts all species under additional pressure at a time when they are facing threats such as over-fishing, pollution, dredging, deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction.

It also causes an imbalance in local economies, impacting local communities

Human livelihoods in rural areas across the tropical forest world are closely bound to hunting of wildlife for food and income.

Across the tropics, many more peoples whose cultures are in transition from a subsistence to a market economy depend on hunting as a fallback in times of hardship.

Loss of wildlife along newly created roads to distant markets means that a vital resource is lost.

Remote forest peoples who have few or no alternatives are driven even further into poverty.

Latin America is vulnerable to wildlife trafficking because of its biodiversity. Ecuador has about 1,600 species of birds. Although accurate data about the illegal trade in animals and plants is hard to come by, Brazil’s Institute of Environment and Natural Resources estimates that at least 12 million wild animals are poached there each year.

In Congo, wildlife declined by more than 25% in a single 3-week period after a forest was opened up by a logging company; and in forested areas in Malaysia, which had been accessible by a logging road for at least a year, no large mammals remained.

As soon as a road goes in, outside hunters and weapons also go in and wildlife flows cheaply and rapidly down to distant towns where it is either sold directly or linked to global markets through ships and planes.

“Every time they open a new road, when they start taking out the timber, that’s when most of the poaching happens within five or 10 miles of a road. So as soon as they put in a new road, they just start vacuuming everything out of the area,” says Maher.

Illegal Logging’s Impact on Climate Change

The world’s forests are being rapidly destroyed by agricultural expansion, firewood harvesting and charcoal production as well as legal and illegal logging. Because of the world’s appetite for “precious” and commercial wood, vast areas are deforested each year. The earth’s forests are home to most of the species protected by CITES. Individual countries are responsible for halting shipments of illegally sourced timber and wood products.

Worth an estimated $51–$152 billion annually, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, the illegal timber industry threatens on many levels.

Uncontrolled logging leads to devastating fires, landslides and floods, endangering biodiversity and wreaking havoc on forest dependent communities. It is starving developing countries of money sorely needed to fund schools, hospitals and sanitation. Efforts by these countries to rein in these activities can be very challenging in the face of remote locations, weak enforcement and corruption.

The bulk of this illegal wood is exported, and most finds its way eventually onto shelves and into homes in the wealthy countries of North America, Europe and East Asia. Together, the U.S., Europe, Japan, Canada and Russia consume 74% of the timber in global trade.

HSI Special Agent Patterson says that rich countries want beautiful wood floors, but they don’t understand the devastation to the environment that the logging caused.

The rate of forest loss is greater than ever before.

“In Ghana, for example, they've lost something like 80% of their natural forest in the last 25 years,” Maher said. “And then in Cambodia, places like Andoung Bor, a protected virgin forest area was completely razed in less than 10 years between 2008 and 2017.”

Cambodia has experienced one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, losing about 64% of its tree cover since 2011.

While the illegal importation of wood continues, there have been some high-profile cases in which companies are being taken to court to stop this illicit practice.

In 2016, Virginia-based hardwood flooring retailer Lumber Liquidators Inc. was sentenced in federal court in Norfolk, Virginia, and paid more than $13 million in criminal fines, community service and forfeited assets related to its illegal importation of hardwood flooring. Much of the wood they sold was manufactured in China from timber that had been illegally logged in far eastern Russia, the habitat of the last remaining Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in the world.

This was the first felony conviction related to the import or use of illegal timber and the largest criminal fine ever under the Lacey Act.

HSI continues the fight

HSI remains steadfast in its commitment to combat wildlife trafficking and the illegal trading of natural resources. Through its collaboration with interagency partners, HSI continues to work and build on the strategy’s three objectives: strengthening enforcement; reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife; and building international cooperation, commitment, and public-private partnerships.

HSI’s Harbin said that HSI is at an advantage in investigating these cases.

Through its engagement with the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, HSI has taken steps to coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Office of Law Enforcement and has worked to implement the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking.

HSI also continues to take decisive action to dismantle organized crime syndicates, while specifically recognizing the increasing connection between the trafficking of wildlife and other natural resources and transnational crime organizations.

Some of HSI’s recent successes:

  • On July 12, 2022, Herdade Lokua, 34, and Jospin Mujangi, 32, of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), each plead guilty in federal court in Seattle, WA to conspiracy, and Lacey Act violations for trafficking elephant ivory and white rhinoceros horn from DRC to Seattle. HSI Seattle, in conjunction with the Department of State, Department of Justice, FWS, CBP, Seattle Police Department and HSI Nairobi, spearheaded the investigation as part of “Operation Kuluna.” Immediately after the arrests, the task force in DRC acted on information provided by HSI Seattle to make additional arrests and seize 2,067 pounds of ivory and 75 pounds of pangolin scales in Kinshasa. The DRC placed the value of the wildlife trafficking contraband at approximately $3.5 million.
  • On July 26, 2021, a husband and wife pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act for illegally selling Louisiana box turtles and were sentenced to serve one year of probation. Federal investigators initiated an undercover investigation after receiving information from a confidential informant that the defendants illegally captured and sold common box turtles, a protected species, exporting them to New Jersey. This joint criminal investigation was conducted by HSI, FWS, and USPIS.
  • On January 25, 2021, a federal judge sentenced a Dallas business owner to pay a $2,000 fine and to complete a 1-year term of probation. The owner pleaded guilty to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). A joint investigation by HSI, FWS, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division found that between June 2017 and April 2019, the defendant, who owned a Dallas mystic shop, sold dried hummingbird carcasses known as “chuparosas,” without a valid permit. Some believe that “chuparosas” impart mystical benefits and use them as amulets or charms.
  • On December 14, 2020, a federal court sentenced a smuggler to 6 months’ incarceration for smuggling protected sea cucumbers, valued at more than $60,000, into the United States from Mexico in violation of the Lacey Act and U.S. customs law.
  • On November 13, 2020, following a joint HSI and FWS criminal investigation, a federal judge sentenced a defendant to time served and two years’ supervised release. He further was ordered to pay $1,500 in restitution to the government of Mexico. This defendant pleaded guilty to both Lacey Act and customs violations for smuggling Totoaba macdonaldi (Totoaba) into the United States from Mexico.
  • On October 8, 2020, the owner of a Japanese fishing vessel pleaded guilty to unlawful trafficking of shark fins and was sentenced to the largest criminal monetary penalty ever imposed in a federal shark finning case in the United States. This case was investigated by HSI, FWS and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and involved notable assistance from CBP, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and the U.S. Coast Guard.

 

“The sad thing is, they don't have to injure the rhino. Specialized veterinarians are able to safely and humanely remove the majority of the horn to deter poachers. This process is akin to trimming human fingernails, which are made of the same substance: keratin protein,” said Elliot Harbin, program manager, Environmental Crimes, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). “The horn will eventually grow back naturally, like hair.”
A South African Parks ranger approaches a poached rhino in Kruger National Park, South Africa
A South African Parks ranger approaches a poached rhino in Kruger National Park, South Africa; photo courtesy of HSI Special Agent Kyle Maher.
“We have authorities that no other agency has. We've got border search authority; we've got access to Bank Secrecy Act financials; and we also have access to all trade data import and export data that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) collects, whether it's on behalf of the Department of Commerce or whomever,” he said. “We have access to that and when you've got all of that, basically you can flesh out just about any criminal organization.”
“The corruption and money that is generated just destroys the working people and the tribal and indigenous populations in these areas,” Harbin says. “They are just decimated in some places like Peru and Ecuador.”
“Your average American probably thinks that killing an elephant is so egregious and it's so horrible,” Patterson said. “But then at the same time, they don’t bat an eye when it comes to some sort of endangered wood species. There's probably just a lack of knowledge there.”
 
 
Updated: 09/27/2022