BANGOR, Maine — A Tennessee man Tuesday pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to three counts related to a scheme to smuggle rare narwhal whale tusks, valued at between $400,000 and $1 million, into the U.S. from Canada.
Jay Gus Conrad, 67, of Lakeland, Tenn., pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to smuggle goods into the U.S., conspiracy to launder money and smuggling goods into the U.S.
Conrad’s crime represents a tiny piece of a $20-billion-a-year global industry known as wildlife trafficking, according to Havocscope.com, a website that tracks black market activities. A 2009 study conducted by the Economic Research Center for the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that wildlife smuggling accounted for about 1 percent of commercial wildlife shipments to the U.S. and 0.4 percent of the total value of U.S. wildlife imports.
The focus of the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division recently has been the trafficking of elephant ivory, rhinoceros horns, black coral, leopard hides and exotic live animals such as snakes, orangutans and Java kingfishers, according to a fact sheet issued in September.
Efforts to reach the division late Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Conrad was described in one court document as “a lifelong collector of wildlife and wildlife parts, including ivory tusks, horns and mounts of various animal species.” He is typical of some of the defendants successfully prosecuted in the past three years by the DOJ, according to the fact sheet.
By pleading guilty, Conrad admitted that between November 2003 and sometime in 2008 he was part of a cross-border scheme that smuggled at least 100 narwhal whale tusks into the U.S. without the required marine mammal import permit. Conrad also resold the tusks, according to the prosecution version of events to which he pleaded guilty.
In a plea agreement with the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, 10 other counts of the crime to which Conrad pleaded guilty will be dismissed when Conrad is sentenced.
Conrad remains free on $10,000 cash bail.
Federal prosecutor Todd S. Mikolop declined to discuss the case Tuesday. It is the practice of the Justice Department not to discuss cases until they have concluded.
A sentencing date has not been set. The plea agreement stated that under the federal sentencing guidelines, Conrad’s recommended prison sentence would be between four years and three months and five years and three months.
Conrad, Andrew J. Zarauskas, 60, of Union, N.J., and Gregory Robert Logan, 56, of Woodmans Point, New Brunswick, Canada, and Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada, were indicted by a federal grand jury in December 2012 .
All three were charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to import merchandise, conspiracy to launder money, smuggling goods into the U.S. and money laundering.
Zarauskas has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He is scheduled to be tried next month. Logan, a former Canadian mountie considered to be the conspiracy’s ring leader, was arrested last month in Canada on a U.S. warrant. A date for him to appear in court in Bangor has not been set.
The male narwhal whale’s ivory tusk spirals counter-clockwise from its head and can be as long as eight feet, according to NationalGeographic.com. Scientists have speculated it is prominent in mating rituals, perhaps used to impress females or to battle rival suitors.
The narwhal is a medium-size whale native to Arctic waters and protected in the U.S. by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In Canada, it is protected in the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Only the Inuit may legally harvest the whale in Canada. The Inuit may legally sell the tusks in Canada.
Statistics provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that a variety of animal parts and skins are confiscated because individuals crossing the border do not have the proper paperwork to bring the item into the U.S. or it is not allowed in the U.S. for a variety of reasons. Few confiscations result in prosecution, according to Shelbe Benson-Fuller, the Maine spokeswoman for CBP.
She offered the following advice last year to travelers crossing the border:
“To prepare for entry into the United States, individuals should have a completed Customs Declaration Form 6059b upon reaching CBP processing, and declare everything they are bringing from abroad, even if they bought it in a duty-free shop,” she said last year. “Know the difference between prohibited merchandise, which is forbidden by law to enter the U.S., and restricted merchandise, items needing special permit to be allowed into the U.S.”
She urged international travelers to familiarize themselves with the “Know Before You Go” section of the CBP website.