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Acting Assistant Attorney General Dreher Speaks at the District of Columbia Bar Association Panel on U.S. Efforts to Combat Wildlife Trafficking


Washington, DC
United States

Good afternoon.  It is a distinct pleasure to be here and to participate in the discussion of this vitally important topic, especially with such a distinguished and knowledgeable panel and the other co-chairs of the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.

Thanks very much to the D.C. Bar for presenting this panel and to Rick Driscoll and the other organizers.

I’m happy to say I know many of you and recognize many faces, but for those of you who don’t know me, I am Bob Dreher, and I am the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (“ENRD”).

This is a wonderful opportunity to talk about the Department of Justice’s role in, and contribution to, the Administration’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking.

I’m especially pleased that our event today includes a delegation of wildlife officials from many African countries.  This is a great opportunity for them to hear what their partners here in the United States are doing to help address what is nothing short of a global crisis with devastating impacts on African wildlife.

The Department of Justice, principally through ENRD, has long been a leader in the fight against wildlife trafficking.  I would like to take just a moment to tell you a bit about the Environment Division that I lead.

ENRD was created more than a century ago and is one of the Department’s core litigating components, with more than 400 attorneys in nine litigating sections.

While other sections in ENRD also contribute to our wildlife trafficking efforts, the Division has a separate section devoted to the prosecution of environmental crimes, including wildlife crime.  The Environmental Crimes Section has 35 dedicated criminal prosecutors who often work together with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country and our federal agency partners – such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – in the area of wildlife trafficking.

Most of our criminal cases enforce the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, as well as statutes prohibiting smuggling, criminal conspiracy, money laundering, and related crimes.

We have had significant successes over the years in prosecuting those who smuggle and traffic in:  elephant ivory, rhino horns, South African leopard, Asian and African tortoises and reptiles, and many other forms of protected wildlife.  The Department also works with enforcement partners across the globe to promote more proactive international law enforcement operations, including through efforts to train investigators, prosecutors, and judges.

Combating wildlife trafficking is a top priority for the Department and the Department has become even more deeply engaged in the efforts to combat wildlife trafficking as a co-chair of the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking that President Obama established last July.

We worked closely with the other co-chairs, the Departments of State and the Interior, and the other Task Force agencies and departments, to craft the National Strategy on Wildlife Trafficking that the White House announced in February.

And we are presently hard at work with the other Task Force agencies and departments to develop a plan to implement that Strategy.

The National Strategy identifies three key priority areas: (1) strengthening domestic and global enforcement; (2) reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife; and (3) strengthening international commitment and partnerships to fight illegal wildlife trafficking.

As you might expect, while the Department is committed to contributing to implementing all aspects of the National Strategy, our efforts most naturally focus on the Enforcement priority.  I plan to address today two aspects of our work in this area:


I will first describe our actual case work and prosecutions in the area of wildlife trafficking.  I will then describe the Division’s substantial efforts to improve enforcement, generally, through international capacity building and training.



As the Strategy recognizes, strong enforcement is critical to stopping those who kill and traffic in protected species. ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section – working with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country and our federal agency partners – is devoted to making wildlife traffickers pay for their crimes. 

As I mentioned, most of our cases enforce the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act.  The Lacey Act prohibits illegal trafficking in wildlife and false labeling. The Endangered Species Act protects endangered and threatened species by making it illegal to traffic in protected species without a permit and implements our obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the primary international agreement addressing wildlife trade.

In our prosecutions, we are increasingly seeing the involvement of criminal organizations, including transnational criminal organizations that may threaten the security interests of the U.S. and its allies.

By enforcing these statutes, we hope to deter the trade in illegal wildlife parts, and to help protect wildlife that are being killed and driven to extinction across our planet.  In recent years we have prosecuted over 90 cases against more than 200 defendants for smuggling and trafficking endangered rhino horns, elephant ivory, tortoises, reptiles, and many other protected wildlife and plant species.

We are currently involved, for example, in prosecuting cases developed through “Operation Crash,” an ongoing multi-agency effort to detect, deter, and prosecute those engaged in the illegal killing of rhinoceros and the illegal trafficking of endangered rhinoceros horns.  This initiative has resulted in multiple convictions, significant jail time, penalties, and forfeited assets.

Recent “Operation Crash” cases involve organized criminal elements that speak to the scope and scale of this problem.

In one such case, a defendant, Zhifei Li, pled guilty this past December to organizing a conspiracy in which 30 raw rhinoceros horns and numerous objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory (worth more than $4.5 million) were smuggled illegally from the United States to China.  Li admitted that he was the “boss” of several antique dealers in the United States who helped him obtain and smuggle wildlife items. 

In another case, Michael Slattery, Jr., an Irish national, was recently sentenced to serve 14 months’ incarceration, as well as to pay a fine and forfeit proceeds from his illegal trade in rhinoceros horn.  Slattery admitted to illegal trafficking throughout the United States, and is alleged to belong to an organized criminal group engaged in rhino horn trafficking. 

The Division has also seen success in prosecuting those who illegally traffic in elephant ivory.

In one case, the defendant’s import-export businesses were fronts for smuggling into the United States products from endangered and protected wildlife species, including raw elephant ivory. 

Another ivory case concerned a two-year criminal conspiracy in which six defendants pleaded guilty to illegally importing ivory through New York’s JFK Airport. 

We routinely seek punishment that includes significant periods of incarceration, fines, and restitution or community service to help mitigate harm caused by the offense; forfeiture of the wildlife and instrumentalities used to commit the offense; and, where authorized, forfeiture of the proceeds of the illegal conduct.

International Efforts: Training and Capacity Building

As the National Strategy recognizes, wildlife trafficking is a global problem that requires a global solution.  And ENRD has, for many years, worked closely with other federal agencies to help our foreign government partners build their capacity to develop and effectively enforce their wildlife trafficking laws. 

The Division’s efforts in this area include training our foreign counterparts on the legal, investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial aspects of enforcing wildlife laws.  We seek to help our partners craft strong laws, strengthen their investigation and evidence gathering capabilities, and improve their judicial and prosecutorial effectiveness.  Such training develops more effective partners for us to work with in combating transnational environmental crimes.

The Division has, for example, participated extensively in training and general support for foreign investigators, prosecutors and judges through the various Wildlife Enforcement Networks, including networks in Southeast Asia, Central America, and Africa.

We have conducted workshops in multiple countries in these regions, typically with hundreds of participants representing government, the judiciary, industry and civil society.  The workshops provide not only critically-needed training but also an opportunity for representatives from the different countries to exchange views on the shared challenges they face.

I would certainly be interested in an exchange of views with our African partners here today. 

The Division also conducts international capacity building on the related problem of illegal trafficking in timber and plants, which the National Strategy recognizes both facilitates and exacerbates the wildlife trafficking crisis.

National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking

The Department is proud of its record of achievement in this area, but the National Strategy is a reminder that much more is needed. The Strategy calls for increasing federal coordination through a “whole of government” approach.

Based on the analysis of the relevant executive branch agencies and departments, and informed by the expertise of a very strong Advisory Council, the National Strategy is a robust, coordinated and far-reaching document that addresses the multiple dimensions of this growing crisis.

As we move toward implementing the Strategy, we will enhance and intensify our enforcement and capacity building efforts.  DOJ prosecutors will continue to target traffickers, focusing on prosecuting high-level offenders and disrupting illicit financial networks.

We will also continue to support the capacity building efforts of our foreign partners, and will fight transnational trafficking crimes by supporting and engaging in enforcement initiatives together with our international partners.

We are pleased by the commitment shown by members of Congress to protect wildlife and look forward to working with Congress to strengthen existing laws and adopt new legislation to improve the tools available to address this challenge.

The National Strategy addresses three areas where legislation would be especially useful:

Legislation ensuring that wildlife trafficking crimes are base offenses for money laundering charges, so that wildlife traffickers can be held to account for using the proceeds of their crimes to facilitate or hide those crimes. We think it is important that wildlife trafficking crimes are treated like other serious crimes;

Doing more to take the profit motive out of wildlife trafficking through legislation authorizing the forfeiture of the proceeds (ill-gotten gains) of illegal wildlife trafficking and providing sufficient fines and penalties to deter illegal trafficking in the first place; and

Providing that funds generated through prosecutions of wildlife traffickers (through penalties, forfeiture, restitution) can be most productively directed toward conservation or further enforcement efforts.

The Department of Justice is fully committed to doing its part to shut down wildlife trafficking and will vigorously continue its efforts to thwart this terrible crime.  I appreciate your attention this afternoon and look forward to any questions you may have.

Updated March 24, 2015