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Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden Delivers Remarks on Combating Wildlife Trafficking at the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress


Honolulu, HI
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

I am pleased and honored to join my colleagues from the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking here at the IUCN World Conservation Congress to discuss one of the most critical problems wildlife is facing today: illegal trafficking.

Wildlife trafficking threatens the very survival of multiple species throughout the world—including iconic species such as elephants, rhinos, great apes, tigers and sharks.  It also has grave impacts on people throughout the world.  Wildlife trafficking generates billions and billions of dollars in illicit revenues—contributing to the illegal economy, fueling instability and undermining global security.

I am particularly pleased that we have representatives here from all three of the agencies that co-chair the task force—the Departments of State, the Interior and Justice—as well as from other agencies and White House offices that have been active in combatting wildlife trafficking.  I hope that together we can give you a sense of the scope and breadth of work that the U.S. government is engaged in to combat wildlife trafficking, as well as the depth of the Administration’s commitment to solving this tragic and growing problem.  Our efforts have been guided from the outset by President Obama’s recognition that the increasing crisis posed by wildlife trafficking demands a new approach: a whole-of-government approach. 

The 17 federal departments and agencies on the task force jointly developed the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking, which focuses on three key priorities:  strengthening enforcement at home and abroad; reducing demand for illegal wildlife products; and strengthening international cooperation.  I will focus primarily on what the United States is doing at home to stop wildlife trafficking by carrying out the strategic priority of strengthening domestic enforcement and will then talk briefly about the Department of Justice’s role in supporting stronger enforcement around the globe.

First, let me give you a brief description of the Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) and our work.

ENRD is the United States’ “largest environmental law firm.”  We have nearly 650 employees, including 450 attorneys.  ENRD represents the U.S. government in all cases in United States federal courts relating to protection of the environment and natural resources, including fish and wildlife, as well as cases relating to the rights of Native Americans.

ENRD is one of the largest litigating divisions in the Department of Justice, with an active docket of over 6,500 matters and we have represented virtually every federal agency in connection with cases arising in all 50 states and the U.S. territories.  Our responsibilities also involve international work.

ENRD spearheads the Department of Justice’s work on combating wildlife trafficking.  We do so in close coordination with other components of the Department of Justice—such as the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices throughout the country as well as the FBI and the Criminal Division—and with the other agencies on the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.


When one thinks of the Department of Justice and wildlife trafficking, the natural first thought is of federal prosecutors bringing wildlife traffickers to justice.  And, indeed, enforcing our nation’s wildlife protection laws in federal court is one of our highest priorities.  ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section has 40 criminal prosecutors who work exclusively on environmental crime, including wildlife crime.

Criminal enforcement is absolutely essential to addressing the wildlife trafficking crisis and, indeed, to the effective functioning of any legal regime.  That truism is perfectly captured by President Abraham Lincoln’s oft-quoted words:  “Laws without enforcement are just good advice.”

I would like to describe a few of our cases to give you a sense of how we are directing our enforcement resources to take the profit out of wildlife trafficking and to stop wildlife traffickers.  We prosecute wildlife traffickers under statutes that focus explicitly on wildlife protection—like the Lacey Act, the Nation’s oldest wildlife protection law and the Endangered Species Act—as well as under more general criminal statutes that prohibit conspiracy, smuggling and money laundering.  These cases all reflect significant inter-agency coordination and highlight what I think has been the biggest success of the task force thus far:  increasing inter-agency attention to and inter-agency collaboration on combating wildlife trafficking. 

Operation Crash

A prominent example of the division’s robust prosecution of illegal wildlife trafficking is “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.  A “crash” is the term used to describe a herd of rhinoceros.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has led this investigation along with other investigative agencies and many of the cases have been prosecuted together by U.S. Attorney offices and ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section.  Nearly 40 individuals and businesses have been charged and to date there have been at least 30 convictions.  Defendants in these cases have been sentenced to significant terms of imprisonment and the forfeiture of millions of dollars in cash, gold bars, rhino horn and luxury vehicles and jewelry.

The Liao case, from the Southern District of New York, is indicative of many of the attributes we have seen in these cases, including a connection to a consumer market in China.  Linxun Liao was sentenced to two years in prison for his role in a wildlife trafficking scheme in which he purchased and smuggled 16 “libation cups” from the U.S. to China.  Libation cups are ornately carved from rhinoceros horns and the smuggled cups in the case were worth more than $1 million.  Liao was a partner in an Asian art and antiques business located in China and his role was to purchase items, including wildlife items, in the United States and arrange for their export to China.  In this case, Liao purchased the 16 libation cups online from auction houses in the United States which he then smuggled to China without the required declarations or permits.  Liao closely coordinated his efforts with co-conspirators who sold the items for a profit at their antique business in China.  In addition to his prison term, Liao was also ordered to serve two years of supervised release, to forfeit $1 million and 304 pieces of carved ivory.  Liao was also banned from future involvement in the wildlife trade.

Another Operation Crash case demonstrating how U.S. enforcement efforts get at international smuggling rings involves Patrick Sheridan and Michael Slattery, Irish nationals who conspired together and with others to traffic in horns from black rhinoceros.  Sheridan and Slattery have been publicly linked to the Irish Travelers, which Europol has identified as major players in the global trade in illegal rhino horn.  Their conspiracy included using a “straw buyer” to purchase two black rhinoceros horns from a taxidermist in Texas, which the group transported to New York and sold with two other horns.  After being arrested in the United Kingdom and extradited to the United States to be held accountable for these crimes, Sheridan was sentenced this January to 12 months in prison for his part in these crimes.  Slattery was sentenced in 2014 to 14 months in prison for his role.  Both confessed to participating in a conspiracy to travel to and within the United States to purchase rhinoceros horns which were then resold to private individuals or consigned to auction houses in the United States.


The department’s enforcement efforts also target those who traffic illegally in other endangered species.  For example, “Operation Totoaba Drama” is a Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)-led enforcement initiative, in conjunction with FWS, DHS Customs and Border Protection (CBP), prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of California. 

Totoaba macdonaldi is an endangered and legally-protected fish found only in the Gulf of California whose large swim bladder is highly prized as a delicacy and for its purported health benefits.  Net fishing for totoaba often results in entanglement and drowning of a critically endangered dolphin species, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus).  This multi-year investigation has resulted in seizures exceeding 500 totoaba swim bladders smuggled into the United States and resulted in charges against nine defendants.  Defendants have received prison terms and forfeited significant sums.

We are working to make sure that the lessons learned from our enforcement benefit our enforcement partners in other countries as well.  To strengthen enforcement against totoaba traffickers, FWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an INTERPOL “purple notice” to law enforcement authorities world-wide to advise on the techniques being used to smuggle totoaba between the United States and Mexico.

Lumber Liquidators

The next case that I’d like to highlight in this area may not seem like an obvious choice for a panel on wildlife trafficking because its focus is illegal trade in timber, but in my view it reflects some the complexity and challenges of countering illicit trade in natural resources.  The Lumber Liquidators case as an excellent example of how our work to counter wildlife trafficking goes hand-in-hand with and complements, our work to end trafficking in timber and wood products resulting from illegal deforestation. 

Earlier this year, the hardwood flooring retailer Lumber Liquidators Inc. was sentenced in federal court in Virginia to pay more than $13 million in criminal fines, community service, and forfeited assets after pleading guilty to violations of the Lacey Act and customs laws related to illegal importation of hardwood flooring, much of which was manufactured in China.  This is the largest financial penalty for timber trafficking under the Lacey Act and one of the largest Lacey Act penalties ever.  The case was jointly investigated by the FWS and ICE.

The ties between the timber trafficking in this case and wildlife trafficking are clear.  The wood from which Lumber Liquidator’s products was manufactured in China was timber that had been illegally logged in the Russian Far East.  The temperate forests of the Russian Far East include forests of Mongolian Oak that are home to the last few Siberian tigers and Amur leopards remaining in the wild.  The primary contributors to these species’ risk of extinction are destruction of their habitat related to illegal logging and detrimental logging practices.

In light of this, approximately $1.2 million of Lumber Liquidator’s community service payment will go to Congressionally-chartered conservation funds and will be available for, among other conservation purposes, projects for protecting, researching and preserving the Siberian tiger, Amur leopard and their habitat.

I was delighted to see that National Geographic announced this case as one of the biggest wins against wildlife exploitation of 2015.

International Work

As important as robust domestic enforcement is, it’s clear that the United States cannot simply prosecute our way out of the wildlife trafficking crisis.  This is a global problem that requires global solutions.  Increased international cooperation and collaboration are critical and that includes working with our foreign government partners to help build their capacity to craft strong laws, strengthen their investigative and evidence-gathering capabilities and improve their judicial and prosecutorial effectiveness.

The Department of Justice and ENRD in particular, has a unique ability to share with international enforcement partners our expertise at building a strong and effective program to prosecute wildlife trafficking cases.  In our many years of working to train prosecutors in other countries, we have seen that this capacity-building work develops more effective partners to investigate and prosecute transnational environmental crimes, increases our ability to enforce U.S. criminal statutes that have extraterritorial dimensions and helps law enforcement officials in the U.S. and other countries to meet their enforcement obligations under international environmental and free trade agreements.

In the area of wildlife trafficking, specifically, our current focus is on building capacity in source (or range) and transit countries in Africa.  With funding from the State Department and invaluable assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, ENRD attorneys designed and implemented several regional workshops in Africa over the past year. 

Last October, we conducted a regional workshop for more than 30 prosecutors and magistrates from six southern African countries.  The course covered evidentiary and prosecutorial issues unique to wildlife trafficking cases and included sessions on money laundering, asset tracing and corruption issues.  This summer, we held a follow-up session for the same participants to provide practical guidance in implementing what we had taught.  This summer, we also conducted a similar regional workshop for more than 30 judicial officers and prosecutors from west and central African countries.  We will hold a follow-up session for these trainees as well.

Prosecutors and other ENRD attorneys have also participated extensively in training and providing support for foreign investigators, prosecutors and judges through the various Wildlife Enforcement Networks (WENs).  These include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations WEN (ASEAN-WEN), South Asia WEN, and Central American WEN, as well as the launch of WENs in Central Africa, Southern Africa and the Horn of Africa.

In addition to our capacity-building efforts, the Department of Justice also engages in the international arena in other important ways.  In coordination with the State Department and other Task Force agencies, we participate in international meetings on wildlife trafficking—including leading the U.S. delegations to the London and Kasane Conferences on Illegal Wildlife Trade—both to address enforcement-related issues and to help demonstrate the importance of a whole-of-government approach to U.S. counter-wildlife trafficking efforts.  Later this month, ENRD attorneys will join the FWS-led delegation to the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.  ENRD is also active in INTERPOL’s environmental crimes working groups, and the Chief of our Environmental Crimes Section was elected to INTERPOL’s Environmental Crimes Executive Committee. 

Moving Forward

I am proud of the Administration’s deep commitment to combating wildlife trafficking and excited by what has been accomplished thus far through the whole-of-government approach that has heightened attention to this critical issue.  We at the Department of Justice look forward to continuing to work closely with our colleagues at other agencies and with our partners in the international and nongovernmental communities to continue our efforts to shut down wildlife trafficking.

Updated September 2, 2016