|Joint Undercover Operation Links International Black Market to Virginia Mountains
Richmond, VA -– At a joint press conference, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and the National Park Service (NPS) announced the results of a multi-year, joint, undercover, investigation that has produced numerous wildlife violation charges and directly linked the communities surrounding Shenandoah National Park with the multi-million dollar international black market trade in American black bears and American ginseng plants. State and federal officials have become increasingly concerned about the commercialization and exploitation of natural resources and the results of this investigation confirm the existence of an active black market demand for products from the Virginia mountains. The extent of this international demand threatens the viability of the species involved. Additional investigative support was provided by the FBI, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory, the United States Attorney’s Office, and the Rockingham County/Harrisonburg Virginia Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.
A total of 487 state violations (193 felonies and 294 misdemeanors) and 204 federal violations (99 felonies and 105 misdemeanors) have been documented against over 100 individuals in seven states, the District of Columbia and one foreign country.
Operation VIPER (Virginia Interagency Effort to Protect Environmental Resources) is the latest in a series of cooperative interagency investigations. The operation built upon previous state/federal undercover investigations, including Operation SOUP (Special Operation to Uncover Poaching), which was concluded in January 1999. Evidence obtained from Operation SOUP revealed the existence of extensive illegal taking and trade in black bear parts that originated in Virginia, including Shenandoah National Park, which were being trafficked primarily to Asian markets in the Mid-Atlantic states as well as overseas. Operation SOUP also revealed that many of the entities involved in the illegal bear trade were also involved in the illegal commercial trade of wild American ginseng roots, some of which originated from within Shenandoah National Park where the digging of ginseng roots is prohibited.
Based on this knowledge, the recently completed Operation VIPER specifically targeted the illegal commercialization and black market sales of both black bear and American ginseng. During the past three years, the investigation has analyzed the illegal market flow of ginseng and black bear parts and their interrelationship with each other, as well as other commodities within the black market, including other federally-protected species. Utilizing a storefront operation, an undercover agent operated a sporting goods business near Elkton, Virginia, that bought and sold black bears and ginseng roots. The storefront operation allowed investigators to infiltrate the commercial black market commonly associated with wildlife and endangered plants.
Operation VIPER has uncovered evidence that whole bears, gall bladders, bear paws, and other bear parts originating in Virginia are being trafficked to Washington, D.C., Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, and California, as well as overseas. Operation VIPER has established a direct connection between Virginia and South Korea, and has obtained evidence of links to other foreign countries. Shenandoah National Park Superintendent Douglas K. Morris commented, “Commercialization of protected natural resources is a nationwide, worldwide problem, and some of it starts right here in Shenandoah National Park as well as other National Park sites.” To be successful long-term investigations like SOUP and VIPER require extensive cooperation and combined efforts of state and federal law enforcement. Bill Woodfin, director of VDGIF added, “These ongoing investigations indicate an extensive black market trade that can only be addressed by working closely with all our federal, state, and local partners as well as with wildlife conservation groups committed to protecting our natural resources.”
Exploitation of natural resources like ginseng and bear parts has driven these species to near extinction in Asia. The international void, coupled with increased demand for these products by mainstream American markets, raises concern for the protection and conservation of our treasured natural resources. Resource protection agencies like the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the National Park Service will continue to monitor and investigate this threat.
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Illegal Trade in Ginseng
- As with bear parts, the demand for ginseng is profit-driven by its use as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. Ginseng’s history and economic value both originate from China and its neighboring countries, where its root has been prized for a multitude of health benefits. Of great concern is evidence of its rapidly growing popularity as an ingredient in more mainstream products.
- The term ginseng is an Americanization of the Chinese jin-chen, meaning “manlike”.
- American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolia) is used for increased mental efficiency, stress relief, increased stamina, as an anti-oxidant, and to help regulate the metabolism and boost the immune system.
- American ginseng was discovered in 1716 and immediately became a huge export product, second only to the fur trade. During the mid-1800s, the U.S. exported tons of wild ginseng per year, and in recent years has been averaging close to 65 tons of ginseng per year and over 12 million roots.
- Ginseng is sold by weight. Several elements contribute to its value. The larger and older the ginseng root is the more valuable it is. Wild ginseng, which can be distinguished from cultivated ginseng by the space between the rings on the root, is significantly more valuable. Wild ginseng prices average $65-100 per pound for fresh roots or $260-365 per pound for dried roots compared with $8-10 per pound for cultivated ginseng.
- Many areas of the country that used to sustain growths of wild ginseng have been harvested to the point that the more mature plants (five years of age and older) that would normally reseed the populations are no longer present, and the younger plants are not mature enough to reseed. As these populations continue to decrease, poaching increases within national parks and outside of legal collecting seasons.
- In the last 10 years, NPS Law Enforcement Rangers have seized approximately 11,000 illegally harvested roots in Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone. Officials at Shenandoah National Park believe this poaching pressure is directly affecting the viability of the park’s ginseng population, and Operation VIPER has directly linked this heavily poached park plant to the illegal black market, both domestically and internationally. The operation has intercepted covertly-marked plants that support this belief.
- American Ginseng is listed in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) Appendix II, which means it is threatened by trade – trade which must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with the species’ survival.
- It is legal under some circumstances to harvest ginseng in Virginia; it is never legal to harvest ginseng in Shenandoah National Park.
Illegal Trade in Whole Black Bears and Black Bear Parts
- The illegal trade in bear parts is driven by the worldwide demand for their use in traditional Chinese medicine. These products are popular in Asian countries and Asian communities around the world.
- Medical applications include treatment for cancer, burns, pain, asthma, respiratory ailments, diabetes, liver disorders, and stomach flu. Pacific Rim nations, particularly South Korea, use the bile from the gall bladders as a cure-all.
- The most coveted medicinal part of the bear is the bile within the gall bladder. It contains an acid called tauro ursodeoxycholic that can only be found in significant amounts in the gall bladders of bears.
- Dried, ground, and sold by the gram, it has a higher street value than cocaine.
- Other forms of use include soaking the galls in clear alcohol, such as vodka, which is then consumed.
- Sellers can receive anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $3,000 per gall.
- Bear paws are also a valuable commodity and are often made into soup and sold in Asian restaurants for more than $60 per person in the U.S. and for more than $1000 overseas. The soup is considered a delicacy as well as a curative for respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments.
- The paws are often made into display items, such as ashtrays, and the claws are used in the making of jewelry.
- The serious decline of the Asian black bear population has lead to the American black bear being targeted for this trade. North America’s black bear population is healthy but considered to be a vulnerable target as pressures mount for a new source for bile and paws, as well as claws and teeth for jewelry.
- Law enforcement agencies estimate that poachers kill more than 40,000 bears per year in the U.S., including hundreds illegally taken from our national parks. Between 1995 and 1999, Federal law enforcement authorities uncovered more than 70 illegal shipments of bear parts enroute to Asia.
- World Wildlife Fund report notes that the illegal trade in wild animals, plants, and wildlife products reaches in excess of $20 billion a year, and according to Bear Watch, a British Columbia-based conservation group, the worldwide trafficking in bear parts is valued at $2 billion.
Virginia State Law: It is a violation of Virginia state law to buy or sell wildlife or wildlife parts, regardless of whether the wildlife was legally or illegally taken. If the value of the wildlife parts is $200 or more it constitutes a Class 6 felony; if the value is under $200, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor. State charges include:
Unlawful possession, transportation… (Title 29.1-521(10))
Purchasing, selling,… (Title 29.1-553(a))
Conspiracy to violate… (Title 29.1-505.1)
(See Laws and Regulations section for complete citations)
Class 6 Felony: Maximum penalty of 5 years in jail and/or a $2500 fine.
Class 1 Misdemeanor: Maximum penalty of 1 year in jail and/or a $2500 fine.
Class 2 Misdemeanor: Maximum penalty of 6 months in jail and/or a $1000 fine.
Class 3 Misdemeanor: Maximum penalty of a $500 fine.
Most of the federal charges relate to violations of the Lacey Act.
Lacey Act (16USC 3372, etc.): The act prohibits importing, exporting, selling, buying, receiving, or transporting any wildlife or plants taken in violation of any federal or tribal Indian law. It is also a violation of the Lacey Act to import, export, sell, buy, receive, or transport any wildlife or plants taken in violation of any state law if the wildlife or plant is in interstate or foreign commerce. If the act involves importing, exporting, selling, or buying and the market value of the wildlife or plants exceeds $350, then it is a felony. (See Laws and Regulations section for complete citations)
Maximum Felony Penalties:
- 5 years jail and/or $250,000 fine
- Civil penalty assessment of $10,000 for each violation
- Forfeiture of any vehicles and equipment involved in the crimes
Maximum Misdemeanor Penalties:
- 1 year jail and/or $100,000 fine
- Civil penalty assessment of up to $10,000 (depending on circumstances)
Conspiracy to Commit Offense or to Defraud United States (18USC 371): If two or more persons conspire to commit any offense that is a felony violation of federal law, and one or more of them does anything to commit the offense, then all involved parties are guilty of felony conspiracy. If the offense is a misdemeanor, the punishment for the conspiracy will not exceed the punishment provided for the misdemeanor.
Maximum Felony Penalties:
- 5 years jail and/or $10,000 fine
Maximum Misdemeanor Penalties:
- Up to the maximum penalty provided for the violation of the misdemeanor itself