The Bengal tiger cub lay between the legs of Eriberto Paniagua, the 21-year-old passenger in a Chevy Camaro driven by 18-year-old Luis Valencia, court documents said. As the car rolled across the border from Mexico to San Diego, California, early one morning in August 2017, a customs officer spotted the exotic cat and seized it.
Last month U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Battaglia sentenced Valencia to six months in prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle wildlife, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
It’s illegal to bring tigers—an endangered species—into the U.S. without paperwork showing the import is for scientific or conservation purposes. Court documents show that Valencia told a wildlife dealer in a text message that he’d previously imported a tiger from Mexico and that he’d be willing to sell a tiger to the dealer.
Wildlife Watch’s story about the sentencing elicited comments on social media about the penalty, with one Facebook user saying it was “not enough at all. Six months is nothing for this crime.”
Carole Baskin, founder of Florida-based Big Cat Rescue, the largest accredited big cat sanctuary in the U.S., thinks so too. “It’s such an egregious crime against nature to be trafficking these animals,” she says. “When law enforcement actually stumbles upon it, and they find something in violation of the Endangered Species Act, for God’s sake give them a penalty that will make others think twice about doing it.”
These sentiments highlight a common criticism that punishments for trafficking of tigers, reptiles, rhino horns, and other wildlife and wildlife products don’t match the seriousness of the offense. “Prosecutors and judges don’t often give these cases much attention, perceiving trafficking as a lower-priority issue than other kinds of criminal cases,” wrote Micaela Samodelov on the website of the African Wildlife Foundation, a conservation organization that focuses on everything from giraffes to ostriches.
It’s easy to see how a six month prison sentence could be viewed as meek, considering that Valencia’s action could eventually have endangered human lives (tigers grow fast) and led to the death or severe mistreatment of the tiger—a wild animal welfare experts agree doesn’t belong in someone’s home.
Valencia’s lawyer, Robert Schlein, argued that the teenager shouldn’t receive any penalty in part because he simply wanted a pet tiger and had no plans to sell the cub.
But Melanie Pierson, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, believes the sentence, which is close to the eight months she asked the judge to impose on Valencia, was within the expected range and therefore reasonable. “The judge took into account the nature of Valencia’s prior acts and that it’s an 18-year-old kid with no prior record who’s going to federal prison,” Pierson says. “In terms of what Congress has said and the commission has said these crimes are worth, the judge was right in there.” (Battaglia’s office said he wouldn’t comment on the judgment because Paniagua, Valencia’s co-defendant, hasn’t been sentenced yet).
Pierson is referring to the recommendation of the United States Sentencing Commission, a government agency charged with giving judges guidance on how defendants should be punished for federal crimes. The guidelines—which judges must consider when imposing sentences—are broken down by category, with each type of offense designated a baseline number that corresponds with a certain penalty.
Any federal crime involving wildlife, from leading an organized network of wildlife trafficking in contravention of U.S. smuggling laws to poaching an animal in violation of the Endangered Species Act, has a base level of six under the guidelines. For a first time offender the recommendation is a fine between $1,000 and $9,500 and up to six months in prison. (For comparison, the base level for a drug-related offense is 26, which suggests a penalty ranging from about five years to six years in prison for someone with no criminal history.) The guidelines advise adjustments for certain factors, such as whether the defendant pleaded guilty, whether the animal involved was an endangered species, and whether the market value of the wildlife was low or high. Think of this as a process akin to figuring out the perfect recipe.
In Valencia’s case the prosecution argued that when all the factors are weighed, he should end up with an offense level of 10. That equates to between six and 12 months of prison time, probation, or a mix of the two. A sentence of eight months plus a fine of $4,000, the prosecution asserted, would take into account the seriousness of the offense, the need to punish the offender, the need to prevent recidivism, the need to deter other people from committing a crime such as this, and other factors U.S. law requires courts to consider when imposing punishments.
According to people with expertise in wildlife crime, Valencia’s sentence was likely too low to prevent recidivism and others from smuggling wildlife. But Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies organized crime and has written a book about the illegal wildlife trade, says it’s crucial to differentiate mid-level traders and kingpins from low-level offenders like Valencia, who either simply wanted a pet tiger, as Schlein argued, or was “receiving some sort of compensation for transporting the tiger,” as Pierson says the facts of the case suggest.
“We shouldn’t replicate mistakes like the war on drugs, in which low-level dealers and users have ended up behind bars for a very long time,” Felbab-Brown says. She says it’s especially important not to impose lengthy prison sentences on poachers in poor countries in Africa and elsewhere because it does nothing to break the cycle of poverty that pushed them into poaching in the first place. But, she adds, “if you have a U.S. resident who decides, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make a million dollars in rhino horn smuggling while I work at UPS?’—there’s no particular reason for mercy.”
William Woody, the former head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, says courts should aim to make punishments severe enough to change the historically low-risk, high-reward nature of the illegal wildlife trade that has helped turn it into a multibillion dollar business. Woody says that hadn’t happened most of the time he was fighting, first at the state level and then the federal, to stop wildlife crimes.
Indeed the usual result was no prison time at all for all wildlife crimes committed between 1999 and 2014, according to data from Fish and Wildlife Service obtained by environmental publication E&E.
Woody says that began to change after Operation Crash, a criminal investigation into the trafficking of rhino horn, ramped up in 2012. Two years later, for instance, the operation led to the prosecution of Zhifei Lei, who was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for leading a criminal enterprise that smuggled about $4.5 million in rhino horns and elephant tusks from the U.S. to his native China. He was also required to forfeit about $3.5 million of his proceeds.
But Woody doesn’t think that even that penalty is sufficient for someone who has the connections and wherewithal to make millions of dollars from selling illegal wildlife. “For people running these operations, five years isn’t enough. That’s not going to stop them from moving this stuff. You won’t stop it and shut it down until you get longer-term prison sentences,” Woody says.
Possibly an even more important deterrent for high-level wildlife traffickers than prison time is the loss of profits, says Pedro Felício, head of Europol’s economic and property crime unit. “If this is an organization structure doing this for money the only way to effectively stop such a structure is to confiscate their assets and make sure they don’t have the capital to invest in this type of crime.”
In case you’re wondering what’s happened to the smuggled tiger cub, he’s at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, recovering from surgery to fix an intestinal obstruction that could have arisen from being fed the wrong food before he was confiscated. His keepers call him Moka.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org . Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to email@example.com.