Sting operation targets 'staggering' animal trafficking

A law enforcement operation disrupted internet-based trafficking of wildlife species in violation of the Endangered Species Act and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, state laws, and the laws of other countries. Shown here is a Sumatran tiger skin.

'Operation Wild Web,' an undercover sting, targeted widespread online wildlife trafficking involving big cat skins, elephant and walrus ivory, birds and more.

Dozens of people across the U.S. and abroad are facing the possibility of prison time or substantial fines after the largest online sting operation of its kind uncovered scores of protected animals or animal parts for sale, from sea turtle shells to the pelts of big cats.

Six people charged last week in the Los Angeles area include a husband and wife accused of selling a Sumatran tiger skin for $8,000 on Craiglist. Another suspect is accused of selling a jaguar skin for $15,000. Both species are critically endangered and the three suspects could be sent to federal prison for up to a year if convicted, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In another L.A. case, an antique dealer in a posh neighborhood was charged with illegally selling antiques made with parts from seals and whales. The dealer faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Another incident resulted in the confiscation of a Russian leopard skin that was turned into a $19,000 jacket.

"Our message is clear and simple," Edward Grace, deputy assistant director for law enforcement at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said last Thursday in announcing 154 undercover purchases over a two-week period last year. "The internet is not an open marketplace for protected species."

Dubbed "Operation Wild Web," the sting was coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and involved 70 agents from 16 states and three federal agencies who posed as buyers. Wildlife officers in Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand helped by tracking down alleged traffickers who were selling in the U.S. via sites like Craigslist and eBay.

"Wild Web” was the “biggest operation of its type in the U.S. in terms of number of federal and state officers involved," USFWS spokeswoman Sandra Cleva said, adding that earlier reports stating there were 154 arrests were incorrect and that the number represents the number of purchases.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare, which helped scour the Internet for illegal wildlife sellers, recently issued its own report on the growing commerce around endangered wildlife, citing estimates that the trade nets criminals some $19 billion a year.

Both IFAW and the Humane Society of the United States, whose volunteers also helped search for criminals, urged more effort go into breaking up online networks.

"The amount of wildlife available for sale via the Internet is staggering," said HSUS President Wayne Pacelle. "Enforcement activities must increasingly concentrate on this arena of commerce if we are to protect wildlife from cruelty and maintain the viability of species."

Related: Fisherman want humpback whale off endangered species list

While the sting itself was carried out over two weeks last August, federal and state charges were brought against suspects over the last year. The Justice Department is prosecuting some suspects on federal charges, while states are handling violations of their wildlife laws.

Other items seized included elephant and walrus ivory, a zebra pelt, whale teeth and live birds.

In one case, a California scrub jay was being sold after an individual cut down a tree containing the nest of the protected species. "Unfortunately, the bird had to be euthanized due to deformities from untreated broken bones that prevented the bird from being returned to the wild or taken to a sanctuary," the HSUS reported.

Texas led the nation in arrests with 61, and items seized there included a Russian Amur leopard pelt, a Hartmann's mountain zebra skin, a hawksbill sea turtle shell, Texas tortoises, invasive freshwater stingrays, and numerous illegal and non-native invasive snakes.

Related: Endangered animals: How humans are (partly) to blame

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