By Seattle Medium
On Thursday, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced that a King County antique business and one of its owners pleaded guilty to trafficking in species threatened with extinction under a voter-approved initiative banning the sale or transfer of products made from certain endangered species.
According to the Attorney General’s Office (ATG), International Antique & Art Importers Inc., which operates as Ming’s Asian Gallery & Antiques, pleaded guilty to one felony count of violating the voter-approved Washington Animal Trafficking Act (WATA). The business will pay $8,000, which includes a $4,000 criminal wildlife penalty. The penalty helps fund future enforcement.
Additionally, business owner Doreen Russell pleaded guilty Thursday in King County Superior Court to a gross misdemeanor violation of WATA. The judge sentenced her to two years’ probation, and she must perform 240 hours of community service. Russell will also pay $6,000, including a $2,000 criminal wildlife penalty.
Following an investigation, state and federal Fish & Wildlife officers executed a search warrant on Ming’s Asian Gallery & Antiques, then located in Redmond. They found more than 100 items suspected of containing endangered animal species. Investigators sent a sample of eight of these suspect items to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s forensic laboratory for genetic testing. Testing confirmed that six of the eight were illegal to sell or trade — five of the items were made out of elephant ivory, and one was made of sea turtle shell. Investigators also seized sales records and documents from the business, which included information regarding the Washington Animal Trafficking Act — evidence that the defendants were aware of the law’s restrictions on selling prohibited items.
In 2015, Washingtonians adopted WATA by initiative when more than 70 percent of Washington voters approved I-1401. WATA makes it a felony or gross misdemeanor, depending on value, to sell, purchase, trade or distribute parts of specific endangered or vulnerable species of elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, lion, leopard, cheetah, pangolin, marine turtle, shark or ray.
“Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their ivory,” Ferguson said. “Washingtonians overwhelmingly passed an initiative to ban animal trafficking and hold traffickers accountable. I will enforce the will of the people and prosecute businesses that illegally traffic in ivory and other products from endangered species.”
“Fish and Wildlife Police are committed to ending the illegal poaching and trafficking of local and international wildlife species,” said Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife Police Deputy Chief Paul Golden. “Our detectives specialize in investigating illegal trade in wildlife and natural resources, and WDFW officers are present at our ports, wholesale dealers and retail stores. We applaud the Attorney General’s Office for working so diligently on this case. Working together to enforce this law sends a clear message that we will not tolerate the illegal trafficking of products from threatened or endangered species.”
The case began in early 2018 after a Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife detective visited Ming’s Asian Gallery & Antiques, then located in Redmond, while off duty. While in the store, the detective identified several items that appeared to be made out of elephant ivory. A couple of weeks later, the detective returned with another officer and purchased a netsuke — a small, carved ornament, often made of wood or ivory, that are typically worn as part of Japanese traditional dress — from Russell. Based on her experience, the detective believed the item was made of elephant ivory.
After the purchase, state and federal Fish & Wildlife officers executed a search warrant on the business. They seized more than 100 items suspected of containing covered animal species. These items were found on the sales floor and in back rooms at the business.
After examining the seized items, investigators sent eight to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s forensic laboratory for genetic testing. Testing confirmed five of the items were made out of elephant ivory, and one was made of sea turtle shell. As part of the plea agreement, those items will be forfeited to the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW).
Several species of elephants and marine turtles are endangered or critically endangered.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, approximately 20,000 African elephants are killed every year by poachers for their tusks — an average of almost 55 per day, or one elephant every 25 minutes. Due to poaching, habitat loss and climate change, the population of Asian elephants has declined by about 50 percent in the last three generations, according to the WWF.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported in 2016 — when Washington’s law went into effect — that the United States was one of the largest markets for illegal ivory.
In 2015, Washingtonians adopted WATA by initiative when more than 70 percent of Washington voters approved I-1401. The law took effect in 2016. WATA makes it a felony or gross misdemeanor, depending on value, to sell, purchase, trade or distribute parts of specific endangered or vulnerable species of elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, lion, leopard, cheetah, pangolin, marine turtle, shark or ray.
WATA makes it a felony to sell, purchase, trade or distribute parts of specific endangered or vulnerable species if the combined market value of such items is $250 or more.
It is not illegal to possess these items if they were obtained before WATA passed. WATA contains narrow exceptions for some antiques and musical instruments. It also allows for the inheritance of covered items, and allows those who possess items covered by the act to transfer them to a museum or college for educational or scientific purposes. More information about the Washington Animal Trafficking Act is available here.