Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood Delivers Remarks at the 29th Interpol Wildlife Crime Working Group Meeting in London

St. James, London - Good Morning.  On behalf of the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, I want to express appreciation to INTERPOL for inviting me here today, specifically the members of the Wildlife Crime Working Group and its chair, Grant Miller, and the members of the Environmental Crimes Enforcement Committee and its chair, Calum McDonald.  I also want to express appreciation to Her Majesty’s Government for hosting this week’s series of important meetings and events on the topic of wildlife trafficking.

It is my honor to serve as the Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.  In this role, I am privileged to lead a talented team of more than 600 attorneys and staff at the U.S. Department of Justice. They work hard every day to enforce our nation’s environmental and conservation laws and to defend good governance and the rule of law across our nation.

I am delighted to open today’s session of INTERPOL’s 29th Wildlife Crime Working Group meeting, and to address you, the investigators, police, and prosecutors who work each day in your respective sovereign nations to uncover and punish criminals who illegally poach and traffic protected wildlife. You are the ones on the front lines in your nations who will be responsible for putting into action the commitments expressed at the London Conference this week.  Without your on-the-ground efforts each day, the goals and promises made by the delegates here this week would go unmet and unfulfilled. And those who seek to decimate protected wildlife for selfish and illegal gain would go undetected and unpunished.

The United States is committed to working across our government, and with multi-national entities such as INTERPOL, to focus our international investments to combat wildlife trafficking in the most strategic and effective way possible.

Within the first month of his presidency, President Trump directly engaged this fight when he issued an Executive Order recognizing wildlife trafficking as a dangerous form of transnational organized crime.  In that order, President Trump directed the U.S. Government to use all the tools at its disposal to disrupt and dismantle organized criminal organizations and the lawless networks they operate.

His Administration has responded to that call. We estimate that the United States government will fund more than $90 million in counter-wildlife trafficking programs and projects in the coming year, including our criminal investigatory and prosecution efforts. 

The U.S. Department of Justice is fully engaged in this effort.

Under the leadership of Attorney General Sessions, who will also be here this week to deliver the United States Official Statement to the London Conference on Wildlife Trafficking, the Department of Justice is prosecuting criminals engaged in wildlife poaching and trafficking, and continuing to seek stiff penalties for those convicted of wildlife trafficking and related offenses.

Each year, American law enforcement prosecutes thousands of poaching and other wildlife crimes, at both the federal and state levels.  Federal prosecutors in the Department of Justice work aggressively with investigative agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and others to pursue criminal cases to the fullest extent.    

Since the Trump Administration took office in January of 2017, our Division’s prosecutors have convicted more than 30 defendants for wildlife trafficking crimes, with another 25 charged during that period. During this same period, significant numbers of additional defendants have been charged and convicted in cases brought by U.S. Attorney Offices across our country, and many other cases are currently under investigation for possible prosecution.

Earlier this year, our Division’s prosecutors obtained a significant prison sentence for a New York defendant found guilty of smuggling parts taken from endangered African lions and tigers. In another case this year, a California resident was sentenced to more than two years in federal prison for smuggling horns taken from endangered African black rhinos.  And as part of a multi-year operation that included this case, at least 50 other defendants have been arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced in recent years for smuggling ivory taken from African or Asian elephants, rhino horns, and other protected species.

Across our government, we will continue our efforts not just to seize illegal wildlife items and arrest couriers, but we will also work our way up the chain to disrupt organized criminal networks.  To meet this challenge, we are committed to improving our working relationships with those in other countries engaged in the same efforts.

We all recognize that our host nation this week, the United Kingdom, is a leader in this fight. In just the last two weeks, the U.K. arrested and will extradite to the U.S. an individual charged with trafficking in rhino horns.  This kind of international cooperation is essential to effectively prosecute traffickers and those in their networks, no matter where they are located. 

Likewise, where we are able under U.S. law, we will continue to pursue charges stemming from financial transactions connected to wildlife trafficking.  We support efforts to broaden all countries’ efforts to attack the financing of wildlife trafficking and deprive networks of the proceeds of their crimes.  As you know, criminals are in this business to profit, and the more effectively we pursue those profits, the more we can disrupt this illegal trade.  To that end, we have worked this year to improve intelligence gathering, as well as to improve the sharing and leveraging of that intelligence to better identify networks involved in these crimes.  These efforts are showing results.

As those here know, INTERPOL also plays a key role in these collaborative efforts, and the opportunities that working groups such as this one provide are key to those efforts. During my tenure at the Department of Justice, our prosecutors have continued to help advance INTERPOL’s environmental crimes efforts.  Our prosecutors serve in a leadership position on INTERPOL’s Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Committee, and in a leadership position in other environmental crimes working groups. To tackle challenges like the illegal wildlife trade, we need forums like this one for law enforcement officials to meet to discuss new strategies and practices, share experience and expertise, and build the bridges of cooperation that are vital in this international fight.

Let me conclude with this: the reasons for battling this illegality are clear and justified.

First, wildlife trafficking violates our nation’s laws, and the lawbreakers know it. The federal Lacey Act—on the books for almost 120 years —makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to knowingly import, export, buy, sell, or even receive wildlife that a person knows was killed illegally, or taken in violation of federal or foreign law. Currently, the Lacey Act, though imperfect, is the strongest tool that federal prosecutors have to stop the flow of illegally poached wildlife into, out of, and around the United States.

Second, these crimes are more pervasive than many outside this room realize. The annual value of illegal wildlife trafficking ranks alongside the illicit trade in drugs, weapons, and humans. A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report cites estimates for this illegal trade as high as $23 billion annually.

Third, we know that many of these crimes are intertwined with, and often funding, other forms of violent or organized crime. It is becoming increasingly clear that at least some of the proceeds of wildlife smuggling, especially wildlife taken illegally from Africa, are funding large criminal organizations and even terrorist groups. Wildlife trafficking not only threatens the continued viability of thousands of species worldwide, but the substantial illicit funds derived from this trafficking threaten global security, fuel corruption and lawlessness, and harm legitimate businesses. And we are not talking about small change here: just one kilogram of rhino horn can sell for as much as $70,000 in Asian markets. We cannot abide commerce like this, derived from the illegal slaughter of protected wildlife, to fund other criminality and lawlessness around the world.

Fourth, ending the senseless extermination of God’s majestic creatures is simply the right thing to do. We don’t want to just tell our children and grandchildren about the African elephant and the black rhino; we want our children and grandchildren to see and experience these creatures themselves.  As the Psalmist wrote, “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24, NIV).  

Under Attorney General Sessions, the Justice Department’s prosecutors are fighting to make sure that those who scheme and plot to criminally profit from the exploitation of protected wildlife are brought to justice, as many defendants across our country are learning. 

We are grateful for your work on this vital mission as well. Thank you.