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12 in California, Nevada charged with online trafficking in wildlife

By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — Among listings for fraying couches and used television sets, the Craigslist ad stood out — $2,800 for a prized Asian arowana fish, believed to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits.

A grammatically challenged buyer from Las Vegas sent the seller an email expressing interest: “Is she a super red asian arowana? I all ready have all the other species and I need the endangered one to finilize my collection.” The seller responded cautiously — “Are you a cop?” she allegedly wrote in one text message — but ultimately agreed to meet the buyer at Laguna Hills Mall in Southern California for the handoff.

But instead of an earnest buyer, Dan Tram Huynh was greeted by undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents wearing hidden cameras and wires to record the transaction. They were part of Operation Cyberwild, a task force created to tackle rampant sales of endangered or protected animals and animal parts over the Internet.

Federal authorities announced charges Friday against Huynh and 11 others based in Southern California and Nevada, hoping to scare would-be sellers and buyers away from a trade authorities estimate may exceed $20 billion a year.

Authorities said the ease of Internet sales has caused a surge in trafficking of wildlife, a practice once limited to hushed in-person sales or retail locations that could easily be monitored. The conservation group International Fund for Animal Welfare, in a 2008 investigation, documented 7,122 online ads and auctions related to sale of wildlife over a period of six weeks. The U.S. accounted for more than 70 percent of those transactions, the organization reported at the time.

On sites including Craigslist and eBay, the sellers advertised everything from $1,000 cowboy boots made from Loggerhead sea turtles to live protected migratory birds and a live piranha, authorities allege. Those charged included a radiologist, a tennis pro and a law student. Some admitted they were repeat offenders who had obtained the animals from international dealers, while others were first-timers looking to make a quick buck off a family heirloom.

“The Internet is now just this enormous tool for increasing the sale of wild animals and animal parts,” said federal prosecutor Rupa Goswami, with the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles. “It became this international phenomenon.”

The operation was launched last summer with the assistance of five volunteers from the Humane Society of United States, who scoured the Web for listings involving endangered animals and passed them on to investigators. Undercover agents then contacted the sellers about the items, often inquiring about whether the sale was legal, according to affidavits filed in the cases.

Many of the sellers appeared well aware that they were running afoul of the law.

“I believe they are considered illegal to hunt for coats so, yes, very rare,” Lisa Naumu, a 49-year-old seller allegedly wrote of a leopard fur coat advertised at $8,000, in an email to an agent. Henry Dao, 41, a Garden Grove, Calif., man who allegedly wanted $1,750 for a pair of live Red-whiskered Bulbul birds, tried to back out of the sale at one point, saying the undercover agent was asking too many questions, according to court documents.

Goswami, the prosecutor, said authorities in some cases even took the step of sending the sellers emails warning them that their listing could be in violation of federal or state laws.

Once the undercover agents bought the items or animals, they confirmed that they were in fact endangered or threatened species — or products made from them — through DNA tests. In researching birds, they consulted forensic ornithologists.

Nine defendants were charged with federal misdemeanor violations carrying maximum sentences of one year or six months in prison. Three were charged in state court of misdemeanor Fish and Game Code violations.

Those charged include George Lovell, 49, for the sale of sea turtle boots; Victor Northrop, 48, for a rug made of an endangered tiger; Karla Trejo, 42, for a live Western Scrub Jay; Alex Madar, 27, for sea turtle shoes; Kamipeli Piuleini, 35, for a Hawksbill sea turtle shell; Tyler Homesley, 24, for offering to sell protected migratory birds; Alfredo Vazquez, 50, for an elephant’s foot, a mounted hawk and a mounted owl; James Colburn, 66, for a bear skin rug; Blake Diekman, 27, for a live piranha.

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