Joint Operation Cracks International Poaching Ring

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At a joint press conference, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and the National Park Service (NPS) announced the results of a multi-year, joint undercover investigation that has produced numerous wildlife violation charges and directly linked the communities surrounding Shenandoah National Park with the multi-million dollar international black market trade in American black bears and American ginseng plants. State and federal officials have become increasingly concerned about the commercialization and exploitation of natural resources and the results of this investigation confirm the existence of an active black market demand for products from the Virginia mountains. The extent of this international demand threatens the viability of the species involved. Additional investigative support was provided by the FBI, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the National Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory, the United States Attorney’s Office, and the Rockingham County/Harrisonburg Virginia Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.

A total of 487 state violations (193 felonies and 294 misdemeanors) and 204 federal violations (99 felonies and 105 misdemeanors) have been documented against over 100 individuals in seven states, the District of Columbia and one foreign country.

Operation VIPER (Virginia Interagency Effort to Protect Environmental Resources) is the latest in a series of cooperative interagency investigations. The operation built upon previous state/federal undercover investigations, including Operation SOUP (Special Operation to Uncover Poaching), which was concluded in January 1999. Evidence obtained from Operation SOUP revealed the existence of extensive illegal taking and trade in black bear parts that originated in Virginia, including Shenandoah National Park, which were being trafficked primarily to Asian markets in the Mid-Atlantic states as well as overseas. Operation SOUP also revealed that many of the entities involved in the illegal bear trade were also involved in the illegal commercial trade of wild American ginseng roots, some of which originated from within Shenandoah National Park where the digging of ginseng roots is prohibited.

Based on this knowledge, the recently completed Operation VIPER specifically targeted the illegal commercialization and black market sales of both black bear and American ginseng. During the past three years, the investigation has analyzed the illegal market flow of ginseng and black bear parts and their interrelationship with each other, as well as other commodities within the black market, including other federally-protected species. Utilizing a storefront operation, an undercover agent operated a sporting goods business near Elkton, Virginia, that bought and sold black bears and ginseng roots. The storefront operation allowed investigators to infiltrate the commercial black market commonly associated with wildlife and endangered plants.

Operation VIPER has uncovered evidence that whole bears, gall bladders, bear paws, and other bear parts originating in Virginia are being trafficked to Washington, D.C., Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, and California, as well as overseas. Operation VIPER has established a direct connection between Virginia and South Korea, and has obtained evidence of links to other foreign countries. Shenandoah National Park Superintendent Douglas K. Morris commented, “Commercialization of protected natural resources is a nationwide, worldwide problem, and some of it starts right here in Shenandoah National Park as well as other National Park sites.” To be successful long-term investigations like SOUP and VIPER require extensive cooperation and combined efforts of state and federal law enforcement. Bill Woodfin, director of VDGIF added, “These ongoing investigations indicate an extensive black market trade that can only be addressed by working closely with all our federal, state, and local partners as well as with wildlife conservation groups committed to protecting our natural resources.”

Exploitation of natural resources like ginseng and bear parts has driven these species to near extinction in Asia. The international void, coupled with increased demand for these products by mainstream American markets, raises concern for the protection and conservation of our treasured natural resources. Resource protection agencies like the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the National Park Service will continue to monitor and investigate this threat.