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The trouble with trafficking: Lecture focuses on international wildlife trafficking

By Staff | Apr 5, 2019

Keith Toomey, special agent in charge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Professional Responsibility Unit speaks about international wildlife trafficking in Erma Ora Byrd Hall on March 27. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN – As the second-to-last installment in this semester’s Criminal Justice Lecture Series, Shepherd University’s Department of Sociology and Geography welcomed Keith Toomey to talk about his experience dealing with international wildlife trafficking in Erma Ora Byrd Hall on March 27.

As the special agent in charge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Professional Responsibility Unit, Toomey has spent the last 13 years of his career investigating criminal behavior. Despite coming to his current job with 15 years of law enforcement experience, Toomey said he was unfamiliar with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“I hadn’t heard of it, until I came to work for it,” Toomey said, mentioning the organization is part of the Department of the Interior and is the most well-funded law enforcement branch in the U.S.

“The Department of the Interior has a lot of older, legacy agencies,” Toomey said, mentioning the jobs in his organization have changed over the years. “Law enforcement officers used to also be park managers. But due to changes in the profession, we’ve gotten away from that capability. Since September 11, 2001, we’ve had to change as well.”

One reason Sept. 11 played a major role in how the organization behaved, was because international money laundering and the sale of trafficked wildlife were being used to fund terrorist operations, according to Toomey. While those who commit these crimes may not be terrorists themselves, they are one link funding the black market chain connecting terrorists to traffickers around the world.

According to Toomey, traffickers have realized the U.S. is more lenient with its punishment of wildlife trafficking than of drug trafficking or human trafficking, so they are favoring this form of illegal trade.

“The one thing America wasn’t kept up to pace with over the years, is wildlife trafficking. A rhino horn can get anything, from $250,000 to a million dollars. But the penalties if you get caught with that, are not as bad as if you get caught with an ounce of cocaine,” Toomey said. “So people are realizing it’s easier to traffic animals than drugs.

“What’s become more of an issue, is money laundering – we do a lot of money laundering cases,” Toomey said. “In Africa, its very easy for traffickers to bribe officials. The African countries are the supply side, the Asia and South American countries are the demand side. All of the money passes through America.”

Today, law enforcement officers have two main roles to play, according to Toomey.

“The function of law enforcement is both on an enforcement side and a regulation side. Our law enforcement officers regulate what goes in and leaves the country,” Toomey said. “We do a lot of work with the DEA, particularly in some of these African nations. We all work together to combat terrorism. It’s no longer just singular people committing crimes in different countries. Everything is so interconnected today with technology, so our world is a lot smaller than it ever was.”

Toomey cautioned attendees at the event to be careful buying Native American products, because many counterfeit items are sold under the guise that they are Native American made.

“Unbeknownst to people, there’s a huge market for fake arts and crafts, fake jewelry. Native Americans can say ‘this was made by a Native American,’ so their products have more value,” Toomey said, mentioning buying Native American counterfeit items takes business away from Native American people. “We have five agents dealing specifically with Native American arts and crafts, which is a multi-million dollar industry. Where there are large Native American populations, this elicit black market is a big deal.”

Toomey is joining Shepherd University’s staff next semester, where he will be teaching a Transnational Crime Class on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.