The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is building a brand-new wildlife trafficking investigations unit—a team financed with a recent $7.5 million appropriation that will support 14 investigators and analysts who will work on timber, fish, plant, and animal crimes.
Some of the focus of the new unit will be undercover operations, says Elliott Harbin, a senior adviser for the new unit, but the team will also unravel other aspects of criminal networks, including money laundering and financial crimes. Often, they’ll partner with other agencies and law enforcement in the U.S. and around the world.
Homeland Security, an anti-terrorism agency that was created in the aftermath of 9/11, said in a recent report that fighting wildlife crime is an important investment in disrupting the flow of resources that support other crimes.
“Illegal money and resources obtained from wildlife trafficking have been used to fund terrorist organizations, so it has become a national security issue for the United States,” says Edward Grace, the assistant director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s office of law enforcement. (See how Mexican cartels have muscled into the totoaba business.)
For the new unit, one recent case is “pretty much a model for what we’re doing going forward,” says Harbin.
It was November 2021, and a team of undercover Homeland Security agents were planning to bust a pair of wildlife traffickers based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They’d been communicating with the traffickers for more than a year, making small wildlife purchases along the way to build trust.
Now they needed to lure the men onto American soil to supposedly negotiate a much bigger deal. But to do that they’d need to navigate ever-evolving pandemic restrictions on foreigners traveling to the U.S.
Their latest COVID logistics hurdle: The Seattle restaurant they’d selected for their sting—one known for high-end business deals—was requiring its customers to show vaccination cards, and the smugglers were unvaccinated.
Coordinating with their partners in the DRC and the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa, the agents made a new plan: meeting at a diner in Edmonds, Washington.
The operation was greenlit, and on November 1, 2021, Herdade Lokua, 34, and Jospin Mujangi, 32, boarded a plane for the long flight to Seattle.
Pancakes and pangolin purchases
“We picked them up at the airport—two undercover agents driving a nice Nissan Armada—it was black, of course,” says Kyle Maher, the lead case agent on the case. The U.S. agents drove the pair to a hotel room filled with snacks and other food and said that they’d come back the next morning to introduce them to their “big boss.”
Early the next morning they all walked to a diner, Maher says, and over pancakes and bacon the two undercover agents and a third one posing as their high-rolling boss got the traffickers talking about the details of their illicit operation.
They negotiated a deal for a massive buy worth about $3.5 million—to include almost 11,000 pounds of elephant ivory, 6.5 pounds of rhino horn, and more than 3,000 pounds of pangolin scales—before they arrested Lokua and Mujangi.
The U.S. team quickly shared what they’d learned with their partners in the DRC—enabling that country’s law enforcement to find and seize thousands of pounds of ivory and 75 pounds of pangolin scales in the men’s stash houses. And months later, Lokua and Mujangi pleaded guilty to both conspiracy and violations of a U.S. law called the Lacey Act, which prohibits wildlife trafficking.
A federal judge sentenced Lokua to 20 months and Mujangi to 14.
A national security issue
Building a case against wildlife traffickers—or any criminal network—can be slow, painstaking work. With the DRC case, court documents show that Homeland Security identified that Lokua was using electronic messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram to send photos of “illegal wildlife products, propose deals, and broker deals for elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn, and pangolin scales” since at least 2019.
Both Lokua and Mujangi sent shipments of rhino horn and ivory passed off falsely as “wood” after the products were cut up, spray painted black, and intermingled with black wood.
“You can make a lot of money being involved in [wildlife crime] and the type of penalties are a lot different than if you get caught trafficking in arms or illicit drugs or smuggling humans—but they use the same routes,” Grace says.
Zoonotic disease threats from the wildlife trade are also a priority and security threat, he says, adding that Homeland Security as an agency has far more personnel and significant intel at the U.S. borders than FWS.
To augment Homeland Security’s new effort, the U.S. FWS has offered to detail one of its agents to the unit, Grace says. “Our years of experience investigating wildlife crimes and [Homeland’s] resources combined will allow both our agencies to tackle wildlife trafficking in a more coordinated and formidable response.”
Greater resources will still be needed beyond this small new unit, including more U.S. FWS agents to investigate crimes and monitor the legal wildlife trade for zoonotic threats, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Even though trafficking in natural resources has significantly expanded in recent decades, she says, the number of special agents at the FWS has hovered around 220 for years.
Dedicating further personnel to wildlife trafficking is a great first step, she says, but the central question with units like these is how well it work with other agencies to tackle complex problems.