“Who in the World Would Buy That?” Wildlife Trafficking Leaves Judges Scratching Their Heads — And Species Paying the Price

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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From Panama to the Netherlands – Sea Shepherd Legal on the Global Campaign Trail

Sea Shepherd Legal spent the past month on the campaign trail forging relationships with officials globally to protect marine wildlife and habitats.  These in-person meetings set the stage for a great start to 2016.  Here are a few of the highlights:

RESOUNDING SUCCESS IN PANAMA

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In November, SSL arrived in Panama for the Seventh Annual Congress of the Red Latinoamericana de Ministerio Público Ambiental (Latin American Environmental Prosecutors’ Network, or “the Red”).  The Red is a forum through which 300+ state and federal environmental prosecutors across Latin America share ideas and collaborate regarding effective methods to combat environmental crimes ranging from illegal logging to wildlife trafficking.

SSL’s goal in attending was to highlight the plight of the oceans and the critical need to develop and enforce marine protective laws throughout the region.  We received an overwhelmingly positive response, reflected in (1) an official declaration stating that Red is dedicated to working with SSL; and (2) the establishment of a marine subcommittee to help facilitate immediate and active collaboration between Red and SSL.

COALITION-BUILDING IN STRASBOURG, FRANCE

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SSL participated as an official observer at the annual meeting of the Standing Committee to the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Bern Convention).  The meeting was held at the Council of Europe’s Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg.

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Attending this meeting was key to SSL’s effort to leverage the Bern Convention to protect pilot whales and other small cetaceans.  These creatures are being brutally slaughtered each year in the Faroe Islands, a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark.  Pilot whales are listed in Appendix II of the Bern Convention.  As such, state parties, like Denmark, are required to heed the Convention’s prohibition against “all forms of . . . deliberate killing.”

Although Denmark entered a reservation to except the Faroes from the Convention’s reach, it is SSL’s position that the slaughter in the Faroes is nevertheless illegal.  Without a doubt, Denmark’s participation in the slaughter most certainly violates the Convention.  Toward that end, SSL met with representatives of multiple European Union member states and other Standing Committee members, garnering support for an action against Denmark.

KEEPING OCEANS ON THE COP 21 AGENDA IN PARIS

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Following the meeting in Strasbourg, SSL headed west to attend Oceans Day and other events at COP 21 in Paris.  We were both pleased and disappointed by what we experienced.

The primary event we attended was Oceans Day – a forum designed “to advance the oceans and climate change agenda at COP 21 and beyond.”  We listened to multiple world leaders speak about how climate change impacts our oceans, livelihoods and small island states.  Some leaders, including the Prince of Monaco and President of Palau, provided examples of efforts underway to mitigate these impacts.  We were pleased by the awareness, but were disappointed by the following glaring incongruities:

Talking the talk, but not walking the walk  .  .  .

Again, this was the OCEANS DAY forum.  So, what are some of the biggest threats to ocean health?  Climate change, overfishing, and plastics pollution.  Yet, what did the event organizers serve to the participants?

  • Plastic water bottles and plastic cups!  Not only does the production of plastic exacerbate global warming, but a huge amount of plastics from water bottles end up in our oceans.  With 200+ attendees at Ocean Day (not to mention the 40,000+ attendees at COP 21 as a whole, who also were served plastic), just imagine the potential impact.

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Stats at a glance: Meeting the annual demand for bottled water in the United States alone requires more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.  Less than ¼ of plastic water bottles are ever recycled.  Notably, the recycling process also produces greenhouse gases. Why use them?  Why serve them?    

  • Fish and chips!   This is not a joke.  Fish and chips were top menu items for purchase at the Oceans Day event.  It seems obvious that If we want to protect our oceans, we need to decrease demand.  Decreasing demand on our oceans was never mentioned at the Oceans Day event.

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Stats at a glance: Marine fisheries are collapsing around the world.  Approximately 85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited, or in recovery from exploitation.  Scientists warn that we may be the last generation to harvest wild-caught fish in significant numbers. Despite these trends, global demand for fish continues to rise, with per-capita consumption now four times higher than it was in 1950.

  • Hamburgers and sliced meats!  Hamburgers were one of the first things to sell out at the Ocean’s Day café, while complimentary samplings of salami and other sliced meats were passed around to registered participants (to go along with wine served in plastic cups).  Surely, everyone knows by now that the production of livestock contributes significantly to climate change. 

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Stats at a glace: It is estimated that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation.  Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – per day.  Emissions from agriculture are projected to increase 80% by 2050.

SSL commends the organizers of COP 21 for focusing an entire day on oceans, and for using sustainable products in some aspects of the Paris climate summit.  In the future, we hope to work with organizers to ensure that events we attend are planned in a mindful manner that lessens the impact on marine wildlife and environments.

Oceans- Deserving of a full-day forum, yet merely a passing thought in the final climate agreement 

At COP 21, SSL pushed for due respect for oceans in the new climate agreement.  The agreement took on multiple iterations throughout its development – many of which failed to even include the word “oceans.”  This despite the fact that the world’s oceans provide 50% of our oxygen and absorb 1/3 of our CO2 emissions.  Concerned about the progress of the agreement, SSL circulated an emergency petition to ensure that oceans remain a focus of the landmark agreement.

Ultimately, the word “oceans” at least made it in the preamble, where the Parties “not[ed] the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, . . . when taking action to address climate change[.]”

As a colleague reminds us, “the word game is the long game.”  Even if oceans are not included in the operative provisions of the agreement, the preambular language is meaningful and pregnant with potential.  SSL will do everything it can to make the most of this clause.

COLLABORATING WITH OUR SEA SHEPHERD COMRADES IN THE NETHERLANDS

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Our trip would not have been complete without a campaign trail stop at the Sea Shepherd Global headquarters in Amsterdam.  SSL is dedicated to upholding the overarching mission of Sea Shepherd to “end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.”

SSL is developing multiple legal campaigns that complement the amazing work of the superheroes at Sea Shepherd Global.  Together, we look forward to a strong and successful 2016!   Stay tuned for future blogs and publications.

Please donate to support our work to protect marine wildlife and ecosystems – visit our secure donation link at www.seashepherdlegal.org.