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Endangered species seizure results in conviction

MIAMI - Ruzial, Ltd., a Cayman Islands corporation, pled guilty on May 11, 2009, to felony charges of attempting to import and thereafter transport approximately 29 wildlife items that included specimens of various protected species, knowing that the wildlife was transported and possessed in violation of the Endangered Species Act, the federal Lacey Act and other U.S. laws and regulations, following a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) investigation.

The announcement was made by Anthony V. Mangione, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Miami, R. Alexander Acosta, U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, James Gale, FWS special agent in charge, and Harold Woodward, CBP director of operations.

U.S. District Court Judge William P. Dimitrouleas accepted Ruzial's plea and adjudicated the company guilty. The judge ordered Ruzial to pay a criminal fine of $50,000 to the Lacey Act Reward Fund established pursuant to Title 16, U. S. Code, Section 3375, and administered by the Secretary of the Interior. In addition, the court ordered Ruzial to pay $100,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a congressionally-chartered organization authorized by law to receive payments arising as a result of criminal convictions. Finally, Judge Dimitrouleas ordered Ruzial to forfeit the 29 items of contraband wildlife, which include specimens of reticulated python (Python reticulatus), anaconda (Eunectes spp.), ivory of extant species of elephants (Loxodonta africana / Elephas maximus), tiger (Panthera tigris), leopard (Panthera pardus), jaguar (Panthera onca), Hartman's zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) and lion (Panthera leo).

According to statements made in court and records filed in the case, on Dec. 18, 2007, the vessel M/Y Mystere C. I., registered in the Cayman Islands, made entry into the United States at Port Everglades in Broward County, Fla., from Italy, via Spain, as cargo aboard the transport vessel Enterprise. Ruzial is the registered owner of the M/Y Mystere C.I. Inspection of the M/Y Mystere C. I. by CBP specialists, wildlife inspectors and FWS special agents confirmed the presence on board of numerous wildlife items protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora (CITES).

These items, including elephant ivory, stuffed tigers, wild feline skins and snake skin, are required by federal regulations to be declared upon importation to the United States to both CBP and FWS, and to be accompanied by appropriate CITES permits. Some of the regulated items were installed as fixtures on the vessel, while others were placed about the vessel as decoration. ICE special agents determined that the required declarations of the various items were not made to CBP and FWS. Additionally, the items were not accompanied by CITES export or re-export permits, or equivalent documents, from their countries of natal origin or re-export.

After an initial field identification, specimens from many of the protected animals confiscated in this case were sent to the National Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., for genetic identification to confirm their protected status under U.S. law and the CITES Convention. The contraband wildlife is conservatively valued at more than $85,000.

The Lacey Act protects both plants and wildlife by creating civil and criminal penalties for a wide array of violations. The Act also prohibits the falsification of documents for most shipments of wildlife (a criminal penalty) and prohibits the failure to mark wildlife shipments (civil penalty).

Acosta said, "The Lacey Act, a federal statute dating back more than 100 years, underscores other federal, state and foreign laws protecting wildlife by making it a separate offense to take, possess, transport, or sell wildlife taken in violation of those laws. We will continue to enforce criminal and civil violations of the Lacey Act to protect our endangered species from profiteers and poachers."

"The illegal trade in endangered wildlife robs directly from our future and the futures of our children and our grandchildren," said Mangione. "It robs them of the opportunity to see these creatures in their natural environment. People who engage in this type of activity are criminals, and we will work with our law enforcement partners to ensure that they are brought to justice."

"When a person brings protected wildlife - like ivory, leopard skins, tiger skins and reticulated python snake skins - into our country without following the rules, there are consequences," said Gale. "We are proud of the coordinated investigative work of our agents with their colleagues from ICE and CBP. Using a significant portion of this fine to raise awareness about those rules is the right thing to do as we work to promote the conservation of wildlife here and abroad."

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and Agriculture specialists actively search for prohibited items manufactured at the expense of an endangered species," said Woodward. "The illegal importation and collection of these items contributes to their extinction and deprives us all. This seizure is an excellent example of how CBP is working with our partners in law enforcement to prevent these products from entering the United States."

The $100,000 payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will be used, with the assistance of FWS and other interested federal agencies, to construct and install public information displays in the Southern District of Florida at selected international airports and international embarkation facilities for passengers departing the United States in order to acquaint them with the restrictions placed by domestic and international law on the trade and transportation of protected species.

Acosta commended the coordinated investigative efforts of ICE, FWS and CBP for their work on this case.

This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald.

Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida at www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.