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BORDERLESS WILDLIFE PROTECTION


April 7, 2014
By Jack Saunders

The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to have doubled in value worldwide over the past five years to more than $10 billion a year. As organized criminal networks span the globe to illegally harvest and transport wildlife to illicit markets, enforcement agencies increasingly collaborate in a united effort to fight back.

Environment Canada (EC) has taken on an increased leadership in this fight, as two of its senior enforcement officials were appointed in November 2013 to key positions within INTERPOL’s Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Committee (ECEC).

Gord Owen, EC’s Chief Enforcement Officer, was named a delegate to the executive level advisory board, while Sheldon Jordan, Director General of EC’s Wildlife Enforcement Directorate, was named chair of INTERPOL’s Wildlife Crime Working Group.

In February 2014, the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade concluded with a declaration that highlights several specific actions that governments must take. One directs them to “Strengthen cross-border and regional co-operation, through better co-ordination and through full support for regional wildlife law enforcement networks.”

Recent verdicts delivered against Canadian reptile smuggler Dennis Day and Olivia Terrance, his American associate, illustrate the excellent enforcement collaboration between Canadian and American authorities. The coordinated approach between EC’s Enforcement Branch, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partner agencies proved to be highly effective in this case.

The area around Cornwall, Ontario has long had to contend with smuggling. A river forms the border with the US and divides a sparsely populated Akwesasne reserve with the St. Regis reservation in upper New York State. Day of Cobden, Ontario preferred smuggling tortoises, chameleons, iguanas and more, with help from Terrance, his American cousin.

Day first ran afoul of wildlife laws in the fall of 2008. He pleaded guilty to one count under WAPPRIITA (Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act), after being charged with illegally importing 11 Burmese pythons without the required permit under CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna). These reptiles, along with 25 leopard geckos and one Florida king snake, netted Day a conviction, $2,500 penalty and forfeiture of the animals.

Day was again apprehended in Aug. 2010 during a joint force operation which culminated in one of the largest ever Canadian seizures of illegally imported reptiles.

There were 205 animals, with a total estimated retail value of $50,000 (CDN), seized in Canada. On the US side, 17 shipments were found that included more than 18,000 endangered reptiles. Their estimated value: upwards of $800,000 (US).

The Canadian legal process took more than three years to complete. Finally, in Nov. 2013, Day pleaded guilty and received a 90-day jail sentence. A court ordered him to pay $50,000 to the Environmental Damages Fund and he forfeited the reptiles. This sentence was in addition to an identical one given to Day for violating the US Customs Act.

A few months earlier on the American side of the border, Terrance earned herself a sentence of 18 months in a US federal prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release for participating in a conspiracy to smuggle more than 18,000 endangered and threatened reptiles.

The success of this case reflects the intricate detective work that led up to these apprehensions and the teamwork between enforcement agencies on both sides of the St. Lawrence River.

“After years of watchful waiting, the case began to come together,” says one of EC’s undercover intelligence officers, who cannot be named.

“We had had some sporadic reports of smuggling through First Nations, Akwesasne in particular. Olivia Terrance is Day’s cousin – she said that and that the reptiles were destined for her cousin, Dennis Day.

She was inspected by CBSA for smuggling in reptiles on July 8, 2009 – she declared 1,000 reptiles, including alligators, red-eared sliders and tortoises – and was refused entry to Canada. By that point, I was already working with my colleagues in the U.S.”

The meshing of intelligence on Day, Terrance and their expected markets in Canada coalesced in the form of leads on a delivery to take place in August 2010.

“Finally, we received some information on when and where the shipment was coming from,” explains the undercover officer. “A tipster contacted law enforcement and provided details on an imminent shipment of reptiles destined for Hogansburg, New York, where Terrance was going to pick them up…

“CBSA was engaged in Cornwall, because the shipment could have been coming in by land or by boat. A lot of background work was being done and there was a distinct possibility that the shipment would be going through St. Regis.”

The focus for enforcement then shifted to EC officers, who would be doing the actual takedown, along with a CBSA intelligence officer, who was closely involved in the process.

“Day stated that he used to be involved in cigarette smuggling and then turned to reptiles as it was more profitable,” says EC Enforcement Officer Justin Cooke. “Day would purchase the reptiles from various places in the United States, including Florida, Louisiana and California, and have them shipped to Terrance’s residence in New York. These reptiles were then smuggled across the border into Canada where they would be delivered to Day.

“The day that we arrested him was a mad scramble. We had limited intelligence as to the point of crossing and who would be picking up the reptiles once they reached Canada, whether it would be Day or one of his associates.

“Michelle and I met with the CBSA/RCMP enforcement team in Cornwall. We didn’t have much information to work with, but we knew that U.S. Customs had a helicopter to follow the shipment and that when it happens, it would happen fast. However, it was a cloudy day, so the helicopter had to fly lower than normal – and they were afraid they’d be spotted, so they had to back off.

“We no longer had eyes on the shipment, but our CBSA colleagues spotted a vehicle that caught their eye. The plate turned out to belong to Day’s girlfriend and he was driving it. He parked by the water and we followed him.”

Active communication was the key determinant in the operation, colleague Michelle Dolbec stresses.

“Day drove to a church parking lot, which overlooked the St. Lawrence and waited for the boat… Eventually, he headed for a wharf and we knew the boat must be in transit. CBSA and the RCMP saw a boat with two occupants heading for the wharf, but the takedown couldn’t happen until the packages were put into the van. Until then, we couldn’t do anything.

“The two people in the boat were helping to offload; we radioed that we also wanted to see the payment exchange, if possible.”

Cooke, who also conducted the interrogation, describes the takedown.

“Once the boat docked, an exchange took place and that’s when the takedown happened. Terrance and a male partner took off in the boat and were not immediately apprehended. Day was arrested on the spot and taken into custody.

“During the interview Day mistook one of our notebooks for his receipt book and confessed ‘You got me’. It wasn’t till later that we knew the extent of the bigger picture. In our estimate, we figure Day stood to make a profit of $80,000-$90,000 from the whole venture.”

CBSA’s role cannot be overlooked in this significant case.

“The day of the takedown, we had about 10 people involved,” says an intelligence officer, who also can’t be named. “This was an unusual case around here in that, primarily, the smuggling is in tobacco, or other commodities like drugs. Turtles and reptiles are not something that is smuggled on a regular basis.”

EC Operations Manager Martin Thabault notes that, according to his case history records, this was one of the heaviest combined (jail plus fine) sentences handed out for any WAPPRIITA offence in Canada.

Reflecting on this case, Thabault summarizes the real potential impact of wildlife crime.

“This was one of the most important, if not the most important, cases I’ve dealt with––definitely regarding reptiles. If a species goes extinct, how much is it worth? You cannot put a price on that.”

BIO

Jack Saunders and Denis Labossière are enforcement officers with Environment Canada. Contact: Denis.Labossiere@ec.gc.ca