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Wildlife crime pays for poachers, traffickers

A Florida rattlesnake rustler facing five years in prison for illegally trafficking protected snakes told a former business associate that they could get off easy if they handled matters right, according to recordings by federal agents.

The itch by Robroy MacInnes was stunning. He told the unidentified man, a customer for the illicit skins, that if they stuck together, they could avoid any serious consequences. MacInnes said he had spent a quarter-century trafficking and had never spent a day in jail. The worst punishment he’d ever received was two years’ probation, and he didn’t even have to pay a fine.

He promised his customer that there was a “99 percent chance” he would get only probation too, if he didn’t flip.

“The judge who deals with rapists and murders and stuff and then you’re a guy in there who is saying, ‘You know, yeah, I made a mistake. I bought these rattlesnakes I wasn’t supposed to.’ The judge is going say, ‘F–in’ snakes, I mean what are we talking about here?’” MacInnes said, according to court papers.

In the event, the buyer did flip. But in an example of the sort of outcome being decried by environmentalist and conservation groups, MacInnes was sentenced to 18 months in prison — a fraction of what he could have faced once a federal jury in Philadelphia convicted him. Another partner in the operation, Discovery Channel wildlife star Robert Keszey, got two years.

It was a disheartening revelation for federal prosecutors, who say the $ 23 billion global market for poaching and wildlife trafficking is the fourth-largest illicit industry, trailing only drugs, counterfeit money and human trafficking.

But analysts say the crime is not taken seriously by judges and juries in the U.S., which is the second-largest market for illegal wildlife. Judges slap wrists for some of the most severe and cruel wildlife crimes, hampering federal prosecutors’ efforts to crack down on an industry that has decimated the worldwide animal population and has ties to other illicit activities including drugs and human trafficking.

“The potential sentences are generally good; the laws on the books are generally good, but the actual sentences are less so,” Wayne Hettenbach, a Justice Department prosecutor who handles wildlife crimes, said at an October conference.

Ivory from slaughtered elephants can fetch $ 1,500 on the black market. But in the 15-year period from 1999 to 2014, the average U.S. sentence for being caught with ivory was about three days in jail, five days of probation and a $ 320 fine, according to data compiled by Greenwire, an environmental trade publisher.

The average penalty for possession of rhino horns during that same period was 120 days in jail, 99 days of probation and a $ 78,237 fine, Greenwire’s data revealed. Rhino horn trafficking is one the most brutal wildlife crimes in which the horn is often painfully sawed from the animal while still alive. The horn trades for about $ 70,000 a kilogram, making it more valuable than gold or platinum.

Trafficking in live animals also draws small penalties.

An 18-year-old U.S. citizen convicted of smuggling a Bengal tiger across the Mexican border into San Diego faced up to 20 years in prison, and prosecutors presented evidence he was part of a trafficking ring, seemingly offering to procure monkeys, lions, tigers, jaguars and panthers for clients who promised him tens of thousands of dollars. He was given a six-month sentence.

Christopher Loncarich of Colorado was charged in 2014 with one of the most brutal wildlife crimes in recent history, trapping 30 mountain lions and 50 bobcats and then shooting them in the paws, stomach or legs to make it easier for clients to hunt them, according to court documents. He charged up to $ 7,500 for a hunt.

He pleaded a potential 85-year sentence down to six years, of which he served just two, with three years’ additional probation.

Loncarich’s co-conspirator, Nicholaus Rodgers, pleaded his case down to six months of house arrest, a $ 50,000 fine and 50 hours of community service.

At his sentencing hearing, the judge acknowledged that she was lenient on Rodgers but said he deserved credit for his cooperation with the investigation.

David S. Favre, who teaches animal law at Michigan State University, said those minor penalties are still better than it used to be.

“Ten years ago, these cases weren’t even being prosecuted,” he said. “I’m pleased to hear people are not happy with sentences because it means we are pushing forward and seeing actual jail time in the federal system.”

The same organizations that traffic wildlife also are involved in human trafficking, drug dealing and even terrorism, a 2016 U.N. report said.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which tracks human trafficking cases, said 14 percent of the live animals seized in the U.S. in 2017 came from Latin American countries through the porous Mexican border. The animals were largely moved through the same paths used to bring drugs and illegal immigrants in the U.S.

“It is the largely the same criminal groups because they know the paths to bring people and drugs, so it’s not a leap to bring animals,” said Matthew Sussis, who authored the CIS report.

Some reports estimate that ivory poaching accounts for as much as 40 percent of the income for Somali terrorist organization al-Shabab.

But a senior State Department official dismissed those claims, telling reporters at a press conference he has not seen a link between the ivory trade and the Islamist group.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, an analyst with Brookings Institution, insists the nexus between wildlife crimes and other crimes is overblown. She said similar accusations were made about drug smugglers and radiological weapons after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and those reports turned out to be unfounded.

“Engaging in multiple enterprises is a rare exception rather than the standard behavior,” she said. “It is not the same thing to smuggle a live lion or tiger cub as a kilo of heroin.”

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