Miami wildlife dealer convicted in illegal rhino trafficking deal
Harris faces a possible sentence of up to five years in prison, a term of supervised release of up to three years, and a criminal fine of up to $250,000. U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke who accepted Harris’s guilty plea, scheduled sentencing for September 24, 2014 at 10:30 a.m.
According to case records and a joint factual proffer submitted to the Court, at the relevant times, Harris was engaged in the retail sale of wildlife products, including taxidermy mounts from locations in Miami-Dade County and Laredo, Texas. Further, Harris engaged in the arrangement, brokerage, and purchase/sale of wildlife on a private basis, of various wildlife specimens, specifically including black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) horns.
In the proffer, it was agreed that between June 2011 and July 2011, Harris engaged in a series of telephone conversations from Miami with a customer in California to discuss and arrange for the sale of black rhinoceros horns to the customer by a resident of Phoenix, Arizona. Harris reserved airline seats and a hotel room to facilitate his travel from Miami to Phoenix in July 2011. On July 23, 2011, Harris personally drove the customer, to the home of a Phoenix couple who were in possession of a full black rhinoceros shoulder mount, including the two horns of the taxidermied mount. At that meeting, the mount was purchased by the customer for approximately $60,000 in cash, and the rhinoceros horns pried from the head mount. To conceal the nature of the transaction and make it appear that the transaction was solely an intra-state deal, a false invoice was prepared, listing a third-party Arizona resident, also brought to the home by Harris, as the buyer. Harris was paid a “finder’s fee” by the California customer of approximately $10,000 for his services in locating the seller and arranging the deal.
Harris admitted to the Court that based on his prior familiarity with the California-based buyer, and his experience in the industry, he knew that the rhinoceros horns in question would be and in fact were, transported to California and thereafter exported from the United States without compliance with the laws and regulations governing such transactions.
Trade in rhinoceros horn has been regulated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”) since 1976. CITES is a treaty providing protection to fish, wildlife and plants that are or could become imperiled due to the demands of international markets. CITES has been signed by over 170 countries including the United States. CITES is implemented in the United States through the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”), 16 U.S.C. § 1538(c); 50 C.F.R. §§ 14 and 23. An animal species listed as protected under CITES cannot be exported from the United States without prior notification to, and approval from, FWS, pursuant to 50 C.F.R. §§ 20.13 and 20.20. Species protected under CITES are listed in a series of appendices (Appendices I, II and III) designating the level of protection afforded each species. Under Appendix II of CITES, a species can be exported from the United States to a foreign country only if, prior to exportation, the exporter possessed a valid CITES export permit issued by the United States. Under Appendix I of CITES, a species can only be exported from the United States if, prior to exportation, the exporter possesses a valid foreign import permit issued by the country of import and a valid export permit issued by the United States. All rhinoceros species are protected under either CITES Appendix I or II. The ESA also made it unlawful to export any endangered wildlife species pursuant to 16 USC ‘ 1538(a)(1)(A).
Rhinoceros are characterized by their enormous size, leathery skin and horns. Rhinoceros horn is a highly valued and sought after commodity despite the fact that international trade in it has been largely banned and otherwise highly regulated since 1976. Libation cups and other ornamental carvings are particularly sought after in China and other Asian countries as well as in the United States. The escalating value of these items has resulted in an increased demand for rhinoceros horn and helped to foster a thriving black market, including modern carvings being sold as antiques. Most species of rhinoceros are extinct or on the brink of extinction as a result of this thriving black market and export activity.
Ferrer commended the investigative efforts of the FWS Office of Law Enforcement who participated in the investigation dubbed “Operation Crash,” which is an ongoing multi-agency effort to detect, deter, and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the unlawful trafficking of rhinoceros horns. This matter is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald.
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