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Oregon wildlife traffickers aid in research

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Sea turtle shells confiscated by wildlife enforcement officers. Under Oregon's Measure 100 the buying and selling of such items would be banned by state law.

Oregonians who pleaded guilty to wildlife trafficking will now be aiding in research. They are hoping to prevent these crimes from happening in the future.

Jes Burns, OPB / EarthFix

Three Oregonians who all pleaded guilty to wildlife trafficking have found themselves participating in a unique form of community service. They are helping a researcher from the University of Maryland on how and why people commit wildlife crimes and ways we can prevent them. This is possibly the first time a partnership like this has been used for wildlife crime research. We’ll hear from Meredith Gore, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, on what she’s learned so far.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: Three Oregonians who all pleaded guilty to wildlife trafficking in recent years have found themselves participating in a unique form of community service. They’re working with an expert on wildlife crimes at the University of Maryland. The hope is that their insight and their experience will help officials learn more about how and why other people commit these crimes. Meredith Gore is an associate professor at the University of Maryland. She has been meeting regularly with these convicted wildlife traffickers and she joins us now to talk about what she has been learning. I want to start with one of the traffickers you’ve been working with, what was he convicted of?

Meredith Gore:  He was convicted of turtle trafficking. I think he was arrested in 2018 and sentenced in 2019 and he was charged with trafficking many different kinds of turtles from his former residence in Eugene, out of the country. So lots of different species – Eastern box turtles, wood turtles, spotted turtles etcetera.

Miller:  What’s the reason for the prohibition on the sale of these turtles? Why is this a crime?

Gore:  In the United States we do have a legal wildlife trade. And so people can buy turtles for pets and they can do it legally. But we also have rules about certain species that cannot be traded because they’re endangered or they’re federally protected. The idea is that he was arrested and then sentenced for trafficking protected species. And the market value apparently was something over $150,000. So they’re trafficked illegally for pets. A lot of the turtles that we have in the United States are beautiful and so people think that they make nice pets. People also illegally trade wildlife like turtles for medicinal purposes, for food, for pets, etcetera. I’ll just also say that a lot of the times when people break rules about wildlife, they break other kinds of rules [like] mislabeling through the mail, mail fraud, money laundering, and there can be other kinds of crimes that are associated with wildlife trafficking. I’m not necessarily saying that’s what happened here. But the rules that are broken sometimes aren’t just about protecting animals and endangered species.

Miller: Where did the idea come from to have these people who pleaded guilty to various kinds of wildlife trafficking work with you?

Gore:  I love that question. I’m a social scientist. I study human behavior as it relates to conservation. And I’ve been studying illegal human behavior for almost 20 years now. And I received a call from a U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer who said, ‘you know, there’s this situation where we have a number of traffickers who are in the sentencing phase of their criminal justice proceedings. And would community service even be an option? And I remember I was folding laundry and I was like, ‘you know what? I’ve never heard of this’. And I’ve had the good fortune to travel all over the world and collaborate with all sorts of people and organizations about ways to reduce the harms associated with wildlife trafficking. And I had never heard about this. So I was really interested. And I started to think about where else this idea has been used?

In a lot of places in the United States, we have offenders that can do community service. But there’s this term, restorative justice.  So I started looking into it and this had never been done in the United States with wildlife trafficking. It’s this idea that there can be a specific offense and then a group of parties can collectively resolve how you deal with the aftermath of this offense and what the implications are for the future. And I started thinking to myself, ‘you know, I’m in Maryland on the other side of the country from some of these traffickers. But wow, they know so much about this issue that I’ll never know because of their lived experiences. And maybe they can help me be a better scientist. And maybe they can help me better understand the process, the operations, the motivations’.

And if I understand better, then maybe I can do a better job working with conservationists, with law enforcement authorities or even with my students. So it was like a lightbulb moment. And the people that I’m working with had to volunteer. So this isn’t an option for everybody and it’s been kind of amazing frankly to be having these kinds of experiences where these people are volunteering to help me better understand the problem of wildlife trafficking. And then what I do is I do science for solutions. Over time I’ve been able to pull in some of my undergraduate research assistants and graduate students. So it’s really been a lot of learning and thinking about the future of wildlife trafficking.

Miller:  Can you give us a sense for the kind of information you’ve been getting from Yuan Xi in particular and then we can talk about some of the other people you’ve been working with. What are you hearing from him? What’s he doing?

Gore: So we’re on opposite ends of the country and there’s a time difference and everything like that. So I study the trafficking networks and I want to understand how people make advertisements on e-commerce platforms or social media. So he is helping me and my students in my lab, funded through a National Science Foundation grant. My students are funded through the National Science Foundation and Yuan is helping us collect data and enter the data into essentially Excel sheets. So he’s able to work on his own time and we check in weekly.

Sometimes  I want to collect data about photographs, information about how long the videos are or how big the photos are. How many photos. And he’s like, ‘no, that doesn’t really help you. So we have these conversations about what I should be looking at, what I should be measuring, and then he helps me measure it. So we’re focusing a lot on turtles and reptiles because that’s what he knows. But I say humans are my species. So I’ll study any fauna and flora that humans will traffic. So cheetahs, parrots, scorpions,  and then wildlife products. So elephant ivory or pangolin scales, things like that.

Miller:  Does Yuan have truly specialist knowledge, which is giving you access to information you otherwise wouldn’t have access to? Or could anyone theoretically with language skills and some understanding of social media, do the same thing?

Gore:  I think that’s interesting. Yes, he has a lived experience that a lot of people don’t have. And so I believe that that lived experience gives him a perspective that not everybody can have. That enables me to look at the problem differently.  It enables me to collaborate with somebody who I wouldn’t normally get to collaborate with. but I’m constantly engaging with different students actually from around the world. We hold these white hat hackathons where I’m able to engage with students or just interested individuals who want to help collect data in support of decision making.

There’s lots of data from other sectors like health care, communication and transportation. But in conservation there are really few organizations that have actually done a good job collecting data. So we’re really far behind. And this really helps me, as a scientist, leapfrog across the scientific pond if you will and do a better job at my science.

Miller:  Has working with Yuan Xi and two other Oregon based wildlife traffickers given you insight into why people commit these crimes? I guess what I’m really wondering is if it’s more complicated than just wanting to make money?

Gore:  It definitely is more complicated than just wanting to make money. So I conduct research all around the world and there are many scientists that study this and there’s all sorts of reasons why people break rules. And I think that that’s something that we can study and understand. I’m really interested in preventing these crimes from happening in the first place. So once the tree is cut, there’s no plan B. And so once these animals are killed, you can’t bring it back as if it’s a live animal. Sometimes it’s so traumatized it can’t be put back in the wild or it’s been moved to another country and we’re concerned about zoonotic diseases – those diseases that move from animals to people. And so we can’t do anything with it. I would like to prevent these harms from occurring in the first place. This idea of being able to work with, it’s like traffickers are teachers. These people have unique lived experience that can help me understand how to prevent these harms from occurring in the first place. The other thing is that people sometimes break rules again and again and again. Right. So this idea of restorative justice is kind of like repairing harm. Hopefully the people that I’m working with won’t do this again.They won’t break the rules again.

Miller:  Have they talked to you, these three people, about that in such reflective ways? Have they talked to you about how they feel about the work they’re doing with you now?

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Gore:  They’re really motivated, which frankly is like an honor that I get to be this person that they kind of share this with because I’m just a scientist. Maybe others can learn from their mistakes and that they can work to repair some of the harm that they’ve done by helping me do a better job with my science. Sometimes we think that in the environmental space, environmental crime is victimless. Who gets hurt if the tree is cut, you know? Who really cares if a turtle dies, you know? But it’s an ecosystem and so if you remove pieces of the ecosystem, the ecosystem isn’t as healthy as it used to be. And so that actually impacts a lot of people, local people, communities, natural heritage, etcetera. Two of the offenders that I’m working with, in particular, seem to be very motivated by preventing others from making the mistakes that they did.

Miller:  Meredith Gore is a conservation social scientist at University of Maryland. We heard about this novel approach to having wildlife traffickers doing community service in an article in National Geographic. Finally, our managing producer, Shiraz Sadiq joins me to read some of your feedback.

Shiraz Sadiq:  Yesterday we talked to OHSU Data scientist Peter Graven about his analysis that the coming wave of COVID infections could be the highest the state has seen so far.

Miller:  Abby Phelps wrote, ‘Infections, yes. Which means closed businesses and canceled events. Be nice when the store has to close early because of staffing problems or the Taco Bell is running a skeleton crew. Thankfully it doesn’t mean the highest deaths or hospitalizations. Previous infection and vaccination are enough to keep people out of the hospital, but not enough to keep people from getting it.

Sadiq:  Recently, we talked to three teachers about how the last school year was for them. Hunter Curry wrote, ‘it was the worst year since my first year as a teacher’.

Miller:  And KJ Perata wrote, ‘and it was my first year teaching and I was pregnant. So lots of anxiety. We used heavy amounts of interventions and most of the students struggled socially. I focused on simply learning to be around each other again. Long story short, extremely challenging. We do not get paid enough’.

Sadiq:  We also talked recently about rising home prices in Oregon and the difficult housing market. We got this voice mail from Rachel Love.

Rachael Love:  My husband and I are in our mid thirties and we are starting this home ownership process and it’s really demoralizing. We’re pretty stereotypical broke millennials. I’m a teacher and we’re having to leave the Portland area. We just have been totally priced out. But I was born and raised here and that’s really upsetting for me to consider.

Miller:  Last week we talked to two people who are part of the Hearing Voices Network. It’s a global affiliation of support groups where people who hear voices or see visions that other people don’t can find support and affirmation rather than being pushed towards medication. Ian McRae wrote this in an email.

Ian McRae:  Hearing voices folks rarely mentioned the disabling features of serious major mental illness features which often prevent the person affected from even recognizing their need for treatment, not to mention pursuing a life of meaning and purpose. Serious mental illness is an agonizing condition when untreated that often leads to drug use, alcoholism or suicide.

Sadiq:  McRae went on to say,

McRae:  Yes. Antipsychotic medications have side effects that can be a hassle. But prompt treatment with these drugs has redeemed many from lives of utter squalor, misery and despair. The fact that we routinely condemn greatly disabled people to the hell of untreated mental illness in the name of civil liberties will go down in history as one of the most heartless and idiotic public policies ever devised by ignorant and uncaring men.

Miller:  Steve Scarich wrote, ‘I have my doubts about normalizing a behavior pattern which is typically a sign of mental illness or psychosis, but I will set that judgment aside. I wish the fact that some violent criminals admit that they heard voices prior to going on their rampage had been discussed’.

Sadiq:  And Russell Senior wrote, ‘after hearing it this afternoon, I just sat with my spouse and made her put down her phone to listen to your hearing voices segment. Humane, articulate guests. Good questions. Outstanding work’.

Miller:  On the recent anniversary of the Heat Dome we talked about what that event had been like in Pacific Northwest prisons. We got this voicemail from Philip Silver.

Philip Silver:  The Heat Dome is sort of a misnomer. You should just call them hate spikes or the changing temperature of the planet. It’s very similar to the drawing pattern that’s going on. You know, 120 degrees is not that bad.  We’re going to see 140′s real soon and they’re just gonna be the new norm. And this is what we want to get people ready for and familiar with. They’re coming.

Sadiq:  And finally we talked recently with the director of a new documentary about the Boy Scouts of America and the claims of more than 82,000 former scouts who reported they were sexually abused by troop leaders.

Miller:  Marlene White wrote, ‘If the sexual abuse of Indigenous Peoples were documented, the payout would be even greater than the Boy Scouts of America one. Our people have been sexually abused by churches and residential schools throughout what is now known as the United States and Canada. It has devastated our people and our families with record numbers of suicides and deaths by drug and alcohol use. We are burying our children and we will continue to bury our children until something is done. I thank you for talking about the Boy Scouts issue. It helps to know that someone was held accountable’.

Sadiq:  We always appreciate your comments, questions and suggestions. Our voicemail number is 503-293-1983. You can also email us. Our address is [email protected] and on Facebook and Twitter, we are OPBTOL.

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