Operation Shellshock’s investigation included law enforcement on both sides of the border; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Service, the New York State Attorney General’s Office, Environment Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and police services in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida.
“Our investigators began this operation with a simple question: Is there a commercial threat to our critical wildlife species? What they found was alarming,” Commissioner Pete Grannis said. “A very lucrative illegal market for these creatures does exist, fostered by a strong, clandestine culture of people who want to exploit wildlife for illegal profit. I’m proud of the success of our officers. Their work sends a strong message that the buying and selling of New York’s native species will not be tolerated.”
On March 19 the two year investigation paid off with 18 individuals being charged with 14 felonies, 11 misdemeanors and dozens of violations in New York. In Ontario 3 men face 34 charges related to the alleged illegal capture, possession and cross-border sale of endangered species. One of those men, Emanuele Tesoro also faces charges in the United States as well.
The Toronto Star reports:
“There were significant numbers of rattlesnakes involved. That can have a big impact on the (Ontario) population,” Ministry of Natural Resources spokesperson David Critchlow said.
On CTV Critchlow added:
“A conviction under the Endangered Species Act alone in Ontario can see a maximum fine of $250,000 and/or a year in jail, and that can be per animal or per offence,” he said.
Throughout the course of the investigation more than 2,400 turtles, snakes and salamanders were documented as they illegally were taken across the borders between Canada and the United States. The DEC currently has 400 live animals being held as evidence.
There were buyers for the animals as far away as China and Germany.
One dealer bragged about the money to be made from selling thousands of snapping turtles from a Louisiana turtle farm. According to a report on Times Union he made $100,000 shipping the animals to China as food.
Smuggling reptiles is not always a safe job. One of the poachers investigators watched had a home video of his arm being swollen and discoloured after a copperhead bite him. That didn’t stop the poacher though from selling the snakes taken from the Mohonk Preserve. Each snake made him several hundred dollars.
A reptiles dealer arrested on the North side of the border in Niagara Falls was driving a van with 33 endangered massasauga rattlesnakes located in the door panels.
The investigators vendors at herpetological shows in New York and Pennsylvania, searched online for chat rooms and Internet sales sites and dealt with countless dealers throughout the two year investigation.
“Reptiles and amphibians are important environmental indicators that tell us much about the health of the planet. As such, they must be protected — not exploited,” said David Critchlow, Provincial Enforcement Specialist of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. “Through the cooperative work of Canadian and American agencies, we hopefully have not only put a dent in the black market for these animals but also sent a strong message to legitimate collectors and the general public.”
Those arrested in the States are facing 15 days in jail and a $250 fine to a $5,000 fine and a four-year prison term.
Many of the animals being detained will be returned to their native habitats.