Operation Wild Web exposes web-based wildlife trafficking

Posted Thursday, Jul. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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From a leopard skin coat confiscated in Fort Worth to a clock fashioned out of endangered Texas tortoise shells and live piranhas sold in California, a two-week online sting by state and federal wildlife officials last summer resulted in 154 arrests for illegal wildlife trafficking.

“It’s not just the uniformed warden that is going to sneak up on you while you are doing your dirty deed. We’re watching you on the Internet, too,” said Captain Greg Williford, who leads the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s criminal investigations unit.

Federal authorities unveiled Operation Wild Web, a joint undercover operation led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and coordinated with 16 state wildlife agencies and three Asian countries, on Thursday.

The sting operation resulted in 30 cases involving federal wildlife crimes and 124 violations of state wildlife laws, according to Edward Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement with the federal agency.

Fifty-one of the cases involving $19,000 worth of illegal transactions were made in Texas, Williford said. The charges ranged from simple permit violations all the way up to the sale of endangered species, he said. Overall, the intercepted transactions involved more than $60,000-worth of wildlife contraband, the federal wildlife agency said.

“Our message is clear and simple: The Internet is not an open marketplace for protected species,” Grace said in a prepared statement.

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.

Carter Smith, director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said the partnership with state and federal authorities targeted some of “the most sophisticated fish and wildlife crimes out there.”

“These days we are just as likely to catch a poacher or other criminal on the Internet as we are on a farm and ranch,” Smith said.

The task force

Over a 14-day period from August 8 through August 22, 2012, scores of special agents and conservation officers from state and federal agencies teamed up to investigate illegal online commerce, Grace said.

Agents from the National Park Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helped staff some of the 14 “task force” groups operating in the United States. Wildlife officers in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia simultaneously ran their own operations targeting online trafficking, according to the federal fish and wildlife agency.

Seven cases were brought in Thailand and Indonesia where animals and parts of animals – such as leopards, tigers, Great Hornbills and Javan eagles – were sold through the Internet, the state parks department said.

Lending assistance were the Humane Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare in the U.S., as well as the Freeland Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society in Southeast Asia.

Among the items seized in the investigation were a fur from an endangered jaguar offered for $19,000 on craigslist and a live western scrub jay, a federally protected bird, the Humane Society said.

The scrub jay was taken out of the wild when an individual cut down a tree containing the bird’s nest. The bird had to be euthanized due to deformities from untreated broken bones that prevented it from being returned to the wild or taken to a sanctuary, the Humane Society said.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has been at the forefront of investigations into illegal wildlife trade. In 2009, the group’s report “Killing with Keystrokes: An Investigation of the Illegal Wildlife Trand on the World Wide Web,” contributed to eBay banning the sale of all ivory items on their platforms worldwide.

That three-month investigation tracked more than 7,000 wildlife product listings on 183 web sites in 11 countries and served as a benchmark for Operation Wild Web, the international fund said in a news release.

‘A saturation patrol’

Williford said the TPWD devoted a lot of resources to the online investigation.

“It was a saturation patrol of the Internet,” he said, noting that about 30 Texas game wardens and special investigators worked on the online sting with state-federal task forces working out of Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.

Wildlife and wildlife products seized in Texas included a leopard skin coat, (an endangered species) Texas tortoises (a threatened species), invasive freshwater stingrays, and numerous illegal and non-native invasive snakes, according to the state parks department.

“The Internet is our friend: eBay, craigslist, blogs, you name it. There are a number of websites where people are talking about what they’ve done both good and bad in regards to wildlife,” Williford said.

The online trafficking in wildlife has become so common that even Internet scammers are tapping into it, he said.

“We thought we were on to some exotic fish but it led to scammers in Cameroon. They recognized it was something they can scam people on,” Williford said.

Williford has been supervising the criminal investigations unit for 10 years and he’s no longer surprised by the growing commercialization of wildlife.

“ It’s all about the bottom line and greed, if there is a way to make a dollar off it they will,” he said.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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