Federal Wildlife Investigation Leads to Felony Conviction of Two Minnesota Women
On January 13, 2009, Pa Lor and Tia Yang, both of Minnesota, were sentenced for conspiracy to import wildlife into the United States. U.S. District Court Judge Joan Ericksen sentenced both women to two years of probation. In addition, Yang was sentenced to five months home confinement, 40 hours of community service and ordered to pay a $9,000 fine. As part of Lor’s sentence, she also agreed to work with federal officials to develop educational materials designed specifically for the Hmong community.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney LeeAnn K. Bell prosecuted the case.
The case against the two women began on October 23, 2005, when Lor was found attempting to smuggle more than 1,300 pieces of wildlife into the country through the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. This discovery was the beginning of a more than three year, multi-agency investigation into Lor and Yang’s illegal wildlife smuggling operation. The investigation was a cooperative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Smuggling Endangered Species and Other Wildlife
On October 23, 2005, more than 24 hours after getting on an airplane in the country of Laos, Pa Lor walked off the plane in Minneapolis, Minn. Like every other international passenger arriving in Minnesota, Pa Lor filled out the familiar blue U.S. Customs form allowing travelers to declare certain items before being allowed into the United States. She did not declare any wildlife, or products derived from wildlife, upon her entry into the U.S.
While going through the normal interview process administered to all people entering the country, an alert U.S. Customs agent decided that something was not quite right. The agent determined that Pa Lor needed to go to the “secondary” or more intensive level of inspection, before being allowed into the U.S. During this secondary interview and inspection process, Customs agents found numerous items that appeared to be parts and pieces of wildlife in Lor’s luggage.
Not being experts in the identification of fish and wildlife, the U.S. Customs Agents called on-site U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife Inspector Linda Benson. Benson, along with Chicago-based Wildlife Inspector Tamesha Woulard who happened to be working in Minneapolis at the time, arrived at the scene and quickly recognized they were looking at a significant amount of wildlife. Many of the items in Lor’s possession were immediately identified as part of internationally endangered species.
“I’ve been working at this airport for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of things,” said Benson. “So, even with the massive quantity of wildlife pieces we found, we were able to recognize many of these items were illegal to bring into the U.S. Specifically, the primate and elephant parts stood out. A monkey hand or foot looks very much like a human, so when you see it lying on a counter, it attracts your attention….and, it leaves an impression.”
In all, 1,388 parts and piece of wildlife were confiscated from Pa Lor’s luggage. Parts of serow, douc langur, Asian elephant, slow loris, clouded leopard and many other internationally protected species were found. As part of Inspector Benson’s investigation at the scene, she was also able to determine that it appeared Lor’s intent was to bring these items into the U.S. and then sell them at her place of business.
“The vast majority of wildlife importation violations I find are the result of ignorance,” said Benson. “People simply don’t know they can’t bring some wildlife items into the U.S. In fact, some people often don’t make the connection that what they have is wildlife. They claim jewelry, clothing or medicine on their Customs forms and are genuinely surprised when I inform them that they actually are importing wildlife pieces.”
While ignorance of the law is no excuse, in most cases that wildlife inspectors determine travelers were not trying to intentionally break the law, the items are just confiscated. “Even if it was a true case of just not knowing or understanding the law, we still can’t allow the wildlife into the country,” explained Benson. “So, the person agrees to abandon the items and that is the end of it.”
However, in the case of Pa Lor, the sheer volume of the items, the intentional concealment of items and the intent to commercially sell the items made it clear this was not a mistake. “This was a planned conspiracy to illegally import wildlife into the United States,” said Assistant United States Attorney LeeAnn K. Bell, who prosecuted the case on behalf of the U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Minnesota. “The facts left no doubt that this was not a case of misunderstanding the laws.”
Commercial Exploitation of Wildlife and Profiteering
Because of the volume and the commercial intent of the wildlife parts, Wildlife Inspector Benson called U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Sheila O’Connor. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents have the training and authority to conduct investigations into the commercial exploitation of wildlife, among other things.
As part of the investigation, Agent O’Connor arranged for two undercover operations at Lor’s place of business. During both undercover operations, agents were sold parts of endangered species. During one of these undercover buys, Lor actually explained how she was able to illegally bring these items into the country. In addition, she told the agent because these items were illegal to possess, he needed to be careful how he transported the items to ensure he wasn't caught with them.
“Thanks to the great work of our undercover agents and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensics Lab, we added a few missing pieces to the puzzle,” said O’Connor. “We knew this wasn’t a misunderstanding, this wasn’t because of any communication barriers or lack of knowledge. Pa Lor knew what she was doing was illegal and she intentionally tried to hide her illegal activities. This was a case of pure profiteering at the expense of hundreds of endangered species. Pa Lor did this for pure profit.”
In addition to making a profit, another reason for bringing these endangered species into the U.S. is because of their use as traditional medicines. Many Asian cultures – as well as European and other cultures -- have been using plants and animals to heal people for generations. Many of the items are mixed into teas or made into powders or lotions and used for a wide variety of ailments. Some items are used as a talisman to bring the strength or the spirit of the animal to the wearer.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is not making any judgment on people’s beliefs,” commented O’Connor. “I sometimes wear a crucifix around my neck because of what I believe. I know people who carry a rabbit foot for luck. I usually make myself of bowl of chicken soup when I get a cold. I can’t call another person’s beliefs any stranger than mine.”
“However, my desire to have chicken soup is not causing chickens to go extinct. The soup has been legally transported and inspected. I am not knowingly, or unknowingly breaking any laws,” said O’Connor. “People who illegally import wildlife are breaking United States laws, International laws and driving species to extinction. I can accept why people use these items, but it doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it legal.”
Why We Protect Wildlife from Illegal Commercialization
While it is nearly impossible to get a firm number on the amount of illegal wildlife trafficking occurring on a world-wide scale, it is estimated to measure in the billions of dollars each year, second only to the illegal drug trade. This illegal trade is the primary threat to many endangered species. Tigers, elephants, rhinos, sea turtles, macaws and a wide variety of other animals are just hanging onto existence. The greed associated with the illegal wildlife market could be enough to push any of these species, and many others, over the edge. According to Agent O’Connor, “One of the fastest ways to cause a species to go extinct is to commercialize it.”
What Is Being Done
Over the course of our nation’s history, we have created several federal laws designed to protect our wildlife. Some of the best known examples include the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act. The international community has also created several laws designed to protect wildlife on a world-wide scale. Beyond all the other country-specific and international laws, an over overarching international agreement designed to protect endangered species is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as CITES. Eighty countries signed CITES in 1973 and today more than 174 countries are participants.
Wide varieties of state and federal agencies, as well as local and non-profit organizations, are working in the U.S. and internationally to help protect wildlife. Link in the “Learn More” section of this website will provide you more information on what these groups are doing, and help you find ways that you can help to protect these endangered species.
For More Information
For more Information on this case, or what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is doing to protect wildlife nationally and internationally, contact the Midwest Region of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service at 612-713-5360 or email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit http://www.fws.gov.
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