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PACIFIC SOUTHWEST REGION: San Diego Man’s Plans to Grow Rare Brazilian Rosewood Trees Fails to Sprout; Fined $100,000
California-Nevada Offices , December 15, 2015
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Seeds of the rare Brazilian rosewood tree were hidden inside intercepted by federal agents at Los Angeles International Airport before they could be smuggled to Fiji.
Seeds of the rare Brazilian rosewood tree were hidden inside intercepted by federal agents at Los Angeles International Airport before they could be smuggled to Fiji. - Photo Credit: Office of Law Enforcement/USFWS
Seeds of the rare Brazilian rosewood tree were discovered by federal agents hidden in airplane parts by John Shea who was attempting to smuggle the seeds to Fiji. Shea  was convicted in September 2015 of violating the federal Endangered Species Act and fined $100,000.
Seeds of the rare Brazilian rosewood tree were discovered by federal agents hidden in airplane parts by John Shea who was attempting to smuggle the seeds to Fiji. Shea was convicted in September 2015 of violating the federal Endangered Species Act and fined $100,000. - Photo Credit: Office of Law Enforcement/USFWS

By Scott Flaherty

John Shea
was a collector with a business plan to collect enough seeds of the rare Brazilian rosewood tree to start a plantation in Fiji, where he would eventually harvest and sell the highly-prized and highly-profitable rosewood to manufacturers of guitars and other products. Executing the plan, however, was illegal and one the La Mesa, California, resident literally never got off the ground.

In May 2013, federal wildlife agents received a tip that Shea might attempt to smuggle Brazilian rosewood seeds out of the U.S. As he was preparing to board an international flight from Los Angeles to Fiji, Shea was met by special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and officers of Customs and Border Protection who asked him about his travel plans. That’s when his business plan began to unravel.

“We asked him if he was travelling with any rare seeds,” said Special Agent Ed Newcomer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in Torrance, Calif. “He initially denied carrying any seeds on his person or in his luggage but, after additional questioning on that subject, Shea admitted that he was carrying seeds. When asked if he was traveling with prohibited seeds, he hesitated again, looked away, noticeably swallowed and said ‘yes,’ admitting to traveling with Brazilian rosewood seeds which he spontaneously described as ‘highly endangered.”

The Brazilian rosewood tree is unique to the Amazon basin in Brazil and is valued for its unique hard wood. The slow growing trees take decades to mature into a tree that can produce lumber. Boards from a mature tree can sell on the black market for thousands of dollars per board. The pursuit of profits from this valuable wood has resulted in widespread poaching of trees and destruction of forests. The species (Dalbergia nigra) is so rare it is provided the highest level of protection (Appendix 1) under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, or CITES, and the federal Endangered Species Act.

CITES is an agreement between 175 nations, including the U.S. and Fiji, to protect native wildlife and plants including their seeds and roots. Trade in species covered by CITES is controlled, and requires permits issued by both the exporting and importing countries. Shea had neither.

“He told me that he hoped his plantation would serve some role in the conservation of the Brazilian rosewood tree, which he acknowledged was highly endangered. He also told me he had put together a business plan for the venture,” Newcomer said. “He claimed to not know what the seeds were worth, but told me he bought seeds from EBay for about $1 a piece.” The agents later learned the truth.

Shea’s plan began in 2012 with the help of a friend who helped him smuggle seeds out of Brazil and into the U.S. In an effort to avoid detection, they sent the seeds through Thailand, Italy, and Germany, where the trees are not naturally found.

A search of Shea’s luggage and other packages checked with the airline turned up more than 7,000 seeds. He even had a dozen seeds in his wallet.

“The seeds were concealed inside parts for a motorcycle and an ultra-light aircraft, as well as inside a drink bottle,” said Erin Dean, Resident Agent in Charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement in Torrance, Calif. Shea admitted to storing an additional 7,000 seeds at his home near San Diego, which were later recovered by Fish and Wildlife agents. More than 14,652 Brazilian rosewood seeds were eventually seized by law enforcement. Shea was arrested and initially charged with smuggling and violating the Endangered Species Act.

On September 16, 2015, Shea pleaded guilty in federal court in Los Angeles to violating the Endangered Species Act. U.S. District Court Judge Otis Wright sentenced Shea to two days imprisonment and one year of supervised release and ordered him to pay a $100,000 fine, the maximum fine allowed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We felt that the maximum fine was appropriate because it reflects the seriousness of the crime and the judge agreed,” said Dean. “The Brazilian rosewood tree is perhaps the most well-known endangered species of plant and the demand for the tree is contributing to deforestation and violent crime in Brazil.”

Pursuant to a plea agreement between Shea and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Shea avoided the more serious penalties associated with smuggling, which is a felony.

As for the seeds, Newcomer said the bulk of the seeds were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where some may be planted at the National Botanical Gardens while the others are maintained for research. Approximately 1,000 seeds were transferred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for study and to use for comparison on possible smuggling cases in the future.

# # #

More information on the web:

What is CITES? https://www.cites.org/eng/disc/what.php
H
ow CITES Works: http://www.fws.gov/international/cites/how-cites-works.html


Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, 916-978-6156, scott_flaherty@fws.gov
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