Wildlife traffickers in Oregon sentenced to help researchers study wildlife crime

The western U.S. state is pioneering the program to help offenders understand and make amends for their offenses.

It was exactly 16 minutes into the Zoom meeting before the topic of Yuan Xie’s parole officer came up.

Xie, a convicted turtle trafficker, shifted in his seat.

“I don’t know how often we’re supposed to check in with your parole officer, but I think we should be able to show we’re making good progress,” wildlife crime expert Meredith Gore told Xie, who’s collaborating with her on a research project studying the illegal wildlife trade online.

He nodded.

They’d been meeting weekly to discuss the posts Xie had seen on Facebook and elsewhere advertising prohibited wildlife for sale. Much of today’s conversation was about listings for the sale of protected turtles, such as the hundreds Xie had conspired to smuggle to China from his home in Eugene, Oregon, before he was arrested by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents in 2018.

Last September, a federal judge had sentenced Xie to five years of federal probation, a $15,000 fine to be paid to a federal fund for combating wildlife crime, and roughly $2,000 in restitution to groups that care for turtles intercepted by law enforcement. The judge also ordered Xie to do 500 hours of community service.

This was no ordinary community service. The judge said that at least a portion of the time should be spent with Gore, a professor at the University of Maryland who focuses on understanding and preventing wildlife crime. For Xie, that meant scouring Facebook, WeChat, and elsewhere for posts advertising illegal wildlife products, then recording his findings in a database shared with Gore and her research partners.

Sentencing that obligates convicted traffickers to participate in wildlife crime research is a new tactic being tried out with Xie and two others, with the backing of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“What Meredith is doing is groundbreaking,” says Andrew Lemieux, who coordinates a wildlife crime research group at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement. It’s the first time any country or authority has used restorative justice to fight wildlife crime in this way, according to Gore and other wildlife crime experts.

“I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to make this a part of the sentence,” says Pam Paaso, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Xie’s case. She says Fish and Wildlife Special Agent Paul Monturoi had suggested the idea to her. “I think it’s great to look deeper into root causes, to understand why people are doing these kinds of things so we can prevent it in the future,” Paaso says.

Monturoi also sounded out Gore, who says she jumped at the chance to better inform her work by spending time with the people who committed crimes. 

“The current system isn’t working,” Gore says, but with this program we’re learning more about the crimes and giving offenders an opportunity to give back.

“Understanding what causes people to become involved in wildlife trafficking is crucial to preventing individuals and groups from becoming involved in the first place,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a statement. “Tailoring the community service portion of a defendant’s sentence, when applicable” supports the agency’s mission.

Exactly what academic researchers and law enforcement will learn from this approach, and how it will be applied to future crime prevention or interdiction policy, is unclear so far. But, Gore says, “I’m seeing much more about motivations, attitudes, behaviors, and just the emotions of it all.”

“I will be looking forward to seeing the results and what we can learn from it,” says Canadian wildlife crime expert Sheldon Jordan, an analytical coordinator with Interpol.

Vermont Law School professor Delcianna Winders says restorative justice approaches have “long been overlooked” for wildlife crime but could play an important role in shaping better policies and benefiting victims and perpetrators alike.

In addition to Xie, two others convicted of wildlife crimes are participating in the program. In April 2021, Agnes Yu pleaded guilty to selling pangolin scales imported illegally into the U.S. She and her husband, Ken, own and operate Wing Ming Herbs, a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Portland, Oregon. Agnes Yu was sentenced to a $5,000 fine and three years’ federal probation. She’s now working with Gore on a voluntary basis—community service that may reduce her probation, according to court documents.

A third Oregon-based trafficker, Darren Dennis Drake pleaded guilty in March to illegally importing and exporting hundreds of live scorpions from Germany. On June 22, he was sentenced to two years’ probation, 250 hours of community service—which include working with Meredith Gore—and a $5,000 fine.

How the program works 

Gore and her graduate students or other research collaborators typically meet weekly for hour-long Zoom sessions with the offenders to learn from their experiences.

When Xie smuggled turtles native to the U.S. to China, he routinely packed the live animals in socks. Some died in transit, which he says he feels “so sorry” about, especially, he says, because he used to himself keep turtles as pets.

He says that after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to smuggle 769 turtles in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), he wanted to complete his community service as soon as possible. He acknowledges that the assignment—doing online searches for illegal wildlife sales—makes sense because that’s what he did for his own illicit business.

Ken Yu, Agnes Yu’s husband, hasn’t been charged with a crime but joins Agnes’s video conference meetings with Gore or her students two or three times a month. He says one reason he participates is to act as a translator because his English is stronger than his wife’s. Gore says that, among other things, they discuss how Agnes drew on her expertise as a shop owner to acquire wildlife products.

Since his wife’s arrest, Ken says, they regularly check in with the Fish and Wildlife Service about the legality of wildlife products they plan to buy for the store. He says they’re often told to ask their suppliers for the export and import paperwork to see whether the permits are in order. Yet suppliers are reluctant to share that information, Ken says, in part because the suppliers assume the Yus are trying to cut them out of any deal by going directly to the suppliers’ source. “We’re not doing that, but that’s their fear,” he says.

The Yus say they hope their work with Gore also will show authorities the challenges that owners of traditional medicine shops face and help businesses like theirs stay on the right side of the law. “We want to better educate people, and we feel that we weren’t knowledgeable enough about this area, and that’s why we got into trouble,” Ken Yu says.

He also suggests that continuing education should be a requirement for traditional medicine shops. As he envisions it, authorities—perhaps the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or city or state officials—could hold regular, mandated sessions to inform owners of import restrictions and changes in domestic or international wildlife trade laws.  

Ryan Bounds, the U.S. assistant attorney who prosecuted the Yus’ case, says getting the perspective of such shop owners is valuable. Agnes Yu can provide “insight into both what drives the traffic, as someone who is a retailer in the trade, as well as how the traffic is undertaken.”  

Gore says many lessons can be learned from speaking with offenders themselves and that this form of restorative justice could be a good fit in other states. The key question, she says, is, “What does justice look like for conservation?”

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.

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