WASHINGTON (LAWFUEL) – A Federal Grand jury in Denver has returned an indictment charging two individuals with smuggling the hides and a skull of two leopards into the United States in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), an international treaty that regulates international shipments of listed species, to which the United States and 172 other countries are members. The leopards allegedly were hunted and killed in South Africa illegally and then smuggled into Zimbabwe to obtain false CITES permits.
Wayne D. Breitag of Aberdeen, S.D., and Jerry L. Mason of Frankfort, S.D., were also charged with violations of the Lacey Act, a federal wildlife statute. Mason is charged with smuggling a hide and skull of a leopard while Breitag is charged with smuggling a hide.
Leopards (Panthera pardus) are listed on Appendix I of CITES. CITES requires that prior to the transport of any part of an Appendix I species from one country to another, an export permit from the country of origin (or a re-export certificate), and an import permit from the country to which the specimen will be shipped, must be obtained and accompany the shipment. The CITES authorities in South Africa set a yearly quota on the number of export permits issued by that country for Appendix I species, such as leopards. These permits are only issued for leopards which have been killed with a valid hunting permit.
According to the indictment, both Breitag and Mason traveled to South Africa in August 2002 to hunt leopards while guided by a South African outfitter named Jan Groenewald Swart doing business as “Trophy Hunting Safaris.” Both Breitag and Mason shot and killed leopards even though they knew at the time of the hunt that they did not possess a permit. Because the leopards were killed illegally, neither Breitag nor Mason was able to legally obtain a valid CITES export permit from South Africa. Thus, in order to import the hides and skulls from the leopards into the United States, they obtained fraudulent CITES export permits from Zimbabwe.
Swart arranged to have the hides smuggled from South Africa into Zimbabwe, where he purchased fraudulent CITES export permits for the leopard hides and skulls. Breitag and Mason then submitted applications to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) falsely claiming that they hunted and killed the leopards in Zimbabwe. On Nov. 5, 2004, USFWS inspectors seized a shipment of five leopard hides and three leopard skulls at the Denver International Airport, which included the hide and skull of leopards that Breitag and Mason killed illegally in South Africa in 2002.
An indictment is a formal accusation and is not proof of guilt. Defendants are presumed innocent until and unless they are found guilty. Smuggling is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine, while the Lacey Act violations are punishable by up to 5 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.
On May 21, 2007, Jan Groenewald Swart pleaded guilty to smuggling charges in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado for his role in the illegal hunts. Swart is currently serving an eighteen-month prison sentence.
The investigation of this case was lead by Special Agents of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. The case is being prosecuted by the Environmental Crimes Section of the United States Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado.