Federal prosecutors announced Friday that a dozen people have been charged with violating wildlife protection laws by trying to sell nearly 50 "wildlife items" online — including a live piranha, endangered fish and birds, a polar bear pelt and sea turtle boots.
Nine people face federal charges and three face California state charges. If convicted, they could face six months to a year in prison and fines of up to $100,000.
The charges were filed Thursday under "Operation Cyberwild," a joint federal and state investigation that began in July, a U.S. attorney's office statement said. Undercover investigators posed as buyers and answered ads placed on websites by sellers in Southern California and southern Nevada.
Special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and game wardens from the California Department of Fish and Game also bought a leopard skin coat for $8,000, a tiger rug for $10,000, a live Asian arowana fish for $2,500 and two live red-whiskered bulbul birds for $1,750, authorities said.
During the investigation, authorities also seized live endangered fish and protected migratory birds, an elephant foot, mounted birds and pelts from a leopard and a bear, federal prosecutors said.
“We made our first undercover purchase within 24 hours of beginning the operation,” said Erin Dean in a statement. Dean is an agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Torrance.
“We hope that this operation will send a message to individuals selling – or even considering selling – protected wildlife that we are watching and that we take these offenses seriously.”
The Operation Cyberwild task force was aided by volunteers from the Humane Society of the United States.
"It's really hiding in plain sight," said Jennifer Fearing, Director of the Humane Society's California division. "[Exotic animal sales] are a multi-billion dollar a year industry, third only to illegal drugs and the gun trade. There are tens of millions of animals traded around the world every year, and the Internet makes it harder."
About a half dozen volunteers from Los Angeles and across Southern California spent weeks scanning websites like Craigslist, eBay and various sellers' forums searching for participants in the illegal animal trade.
"It's pretty exciting to participate in an unprecedented federal investigation while you're sitting in your living room in your pajamas," laughed Fearing. Fearing herself didn't participate, but did direct investigators to potential candidates.