Police cracking down on exotic animal smugglers

SEATTLE -- Law enforcement agencies are cracking down on traffickers who smuggle rare and protected animals, and they say western Washington is a key trans-shipment point.

Prosecutors say animals, both alive and dead, are being shipped around the world, and some of the meat is ending up on restaurant plates labeled as something else.

Armed with biology degrees and keen eyes, US Fish and Wildlife inspectors Marcy Jullian and Ashley Skeen hunt smugglers. One recent bust landed them a crate full of African safari trophies.

All but one of the trophies was legal, but Skeen and Jullian soon spotted an endangered Bontebok antelope, which is on the brink of extinction in the wild. The animal's hide was removed to make it look like a legal antelope.

Federal prosecutor Jim Oesterle will take that evidence and try to get a conviction.

"I do have an interest in protecting species, protecting wildlife," Oesterle said. "But more than that, I have an interest in enforcing the laws. Some species are already being trafficked into extinction in some cases, and we have a responsibility."

An undercover video shows Quyen To selling Asian arowana fish to an undercover cooperating witness. He sells two of the fish for $6,850, and two more to an undercover agent. His aquarium shop is in Seattle's International District.

Asian arowana are almost extinct in the wild. Aquarium hobbyists can get captive bred, but both are illegal to buy and sell in the United States.

To knows that, because he admits to trafficking in the past.

"I don't know anything. I don't know anything, okay?" he said.

To was arrested, convicted and fined $5,000 but he avoided jail time.

American black bear are protected, but that didn't stop Hai Ong Huang, who goes by Wing. He illegally bought bear paws, penis and and 40 gallbladders for $2,400. The items can be resold for big profit to people in Asia and elsewhere who believe they have medical powers.

Wing also bought a cougar for $350, as well as an elk and deer. But he didn't know he was buying from an undercover Washington wildlife officers. No animals were killed specifically for the sting, and most were previously seized from illegal hunters.

Based on their observations, investigators believe Wing used the wildlife meat in his Walla Walla restaurant. He also had black bear parts delivered across the United States to a man in Portland.

According to a federal criminal complaint, undercover Washington State Wildlife officers caught the whole transaction on video.

Wing also had bear parts sent bear parts to New York, Chicago and Oakland. He pleaded guilty and was fined $5,000 and is now serving a year in prison. Yet many of his co-defendants are in Hong Kong.

"So the hope is if we can't extradite them here, they will be prosecuted in Hong Kong, under Hong Kong law. That's our hope," Osterle said.

Prosecutors say Nate Swanson of Snohomish supplied an international smuggling network with protected US turtles. The turtles are being plundered by demand in China, and Swanson was there to meet that demand, according to prosecutors.

They say he smuggled the turtles and other reptiles to China by wrapping them up and stuffing them in express shipment boxes.

When a delivery driver spotted a box moving, prosecutors say the case against Swanson and his co-defendants began. He recently pleaded guilty and will be sentenced in January.

US Attorney Jenny Durkan said she will not tolerate wildlife trafficking.

"Fish species from Asia. Turtles being shipped to Asia. Bear parts. All these might seem like they might be small cases. But in the big picture, it is so critical, that we protect these species, across the globe," she said.

Prosecutors use an international agreement called Cites. In short, they bust local people who are selling Asian fish, and Asian prosecutors go after the their own criminals who are trafficking American black bear.