At this moment the Sea Shepherd Legal team sits in a hall filled with judges, ambassadors, prosecutors, and the leaders of the most critical international conventions that exist. We all share a common goal: to ensure that law promotes rather than hinders environmental protection. The proceedings of the World Environmental Law Congress in Rio de Janeiro have left us feeling empowered. Meanwhile, events in the Pacific Northwest leave us stunned.
This week’s sentencing in United States v. Yeng — where District Judge Robert E. Jones ordered two wildlife traffickers to a trifling $12,500 fine and a mere six months in prison — makes for a sour stew of cognitive dissonance. While the international community and national authorities endorse the notion that we ought to treat wildlife offenses as serious crimes, sentences like this undermine the global fight against biodiversity loss. High-level declarations, like those accomplished here at the Law Congress, mean nothing if they are not reinforced by meaningful outcomes in individual cases.
What went wrong on Wednesday? First and most obvious is the simple fact this sentence is woefully inadequate when examined alongside the facts of the case. The defendants, Eoin Ling Churn Yeng and Galvin Yeo Siang Ann, didn’t just have a momentary lapse of reason. These men ran a complex smuggling ring for a full decade, marketing parts from critically endangered species, offering everything from orangutan skulls to whale bones. They peddled their goods through an online store called Borneo Artifact, using PayPal to collect their fees. And they knew exactly what they were doing, advising buyers to describe the wildlife parts as unsolicited gifts in response to questioning by enforcement agents.
The maximum sentence for smuggling illegal wildlife artifacts is five years and a $250,000 fine. The Yeng defendants walked off with a fraction of that, scoring sentences that topped out at only 1/10 of the maximum available prison time and 1/20 of the maximum available financial penalty.
But why did the judge hand down this insufficient sentence? Yes, the defendants pleaded guilty, saving the court and prosecutor’s office the significant resources involved in a trial. Yet this happens in most cases. There was another dynamic, one that is all too common in wildlife cases: the court simply failed to grasp the gravity of the defendants’ crimes.
After recounting the various specimens involved, Judge Jones asked one very telling question: “Who in the world would buy that?” Think about that for a moment. Would a judge ask this question when sentencing drug traffickers? Would this query arise in a case involving human trafficking, gun running, or any other smuggling activity? In these contexts, judges seem to understand that there is always a buyer for vice, that market demand doesn’t end where the law says it should.
The problem is this: When judges fail to capture the existence and extent of market demand, they tend to dismiss associated crimes as unimportant. This in turn leads to lower sentences, sending a signal of apathy that reverberates down the line to prosecutors and enforcement agents.
This presents an enormous challenge for wildlife. Despite estimates that wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative black markets, behind only the trade in drugs, arms, and humans, wildlife crime lags globally in investigations, arrests, and prosecutions. With their position at the zenith of the justice system, judges have the ability to change all of this for the better. But judges can’t do that if they don’t understand why these crimes happen and the havoc that they wreak.
Wildlife crime is serious crime. Judges must begin to see it as such. Until then, criminals will continue to exploit this soft spot in the criminal justice system.
To respond to this void, one of Sea Shepherd Legal’s core programs involves providing capacity enhancement for judges, prosecutors and enforcement officials. We do this globally – to protect the world’s imperiled marine wildlife and habitats. Please help us continue in this critical work.