Conserving the Nature of America

News Release


April 22, 2000


Division of Public Affairs
External Affairs
Telephone: 703-358-2220

A former Florida reptile dealer who pleaded guilty in January to seven felony counts was sentenced April 16, 1999, in U.S. District Court in Orlando, Florida, for his part in an international smuggling ring that specialized in rare reptiles from Madagascar.

Tommy Edward Crutchfields activities were uncovered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agents during Operation Chameleon, a five-year probe of the illegal reptile trade. Crutchfield was ordered to serve 30 months in prison, perform 150 hours of community service, and serve three years supervised release for conspiracy, smuggling, and violations of the Lacey Act, a Federal wildlife protection statute. During his period of supervised release, Crutchfield is prohibited from dealing with wildlife in any way.

Reptiles account for a significant portion of the live wildlife trade in the United States, and this country is one of the worlds largest markets for these animals. Over the past decade, reptiles have become increasingly popular as pets and as high-priced live "collectibles." Rare species are particularly profitable.

Operation Chameleon uncovered widespread illegal trafficking that targeted some of the worlds most imperiled reptiles. Work on the case, which so far has produced charges against 22 people in the United States and abroad, documented a black market that spans six continents. Those indicted, arrested, or prosecuted include individuals from the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Japan, Malaysia, and Hong Kong.

Assistance from the Justice Departments Environment and Natural Resources Division, the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Middle District of Florida (which together handled the prosecution of several key figures, including Crutchfield), and government authorities in Germany, the Netherlands, Belize, Mexico, and Canada proved crucial throughout the Services multiyear investigation.

"Reptile smuggling is a lucrative criminal enterprise that truly spans the globe, and international cooperation is essential to stopping it," said Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark. "Operation Chameleon is an important milestone in our ongoing effort to combat a serious threat to species that are among the worlds natural treasures. The successful investigation and prosecution of those who trade in protected species show that the United States is committed to protecting the worlds wildlife from illegal commercial exploitation.

Crutchfield, who owned and operated Tom Crutchfields Reptile Enterprises, Inc., in Lake Panasoffkee, Florida, conspired with two German nationals to bring Madagascar tree boas into the United States from Germany in March 1995. He acquired more smuggled snakes of this species along with some Madagascar ground boas from a German national, Wolfgang Michael Kloe, in April 1996. Kloe, who was arrested later that year, pleaded guilty to wildlife smuggling and related charges and was sentenced to 46 months in prison and fined $10,000.

The Madagascar tree boa and ground boa both occur naturally only on Madagascar, an off the southeastern coast of Africa. The two snakes are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) a global agreement that regulates trade in hundreds of animals and plants worldwide. Listing of the boas on Appendix I indicates that they face extinction, and commercial traffic in such species is generally prohibited.

In his January guilty plea, Crutchfield also admitted that he had acquired smuggled exotic turtles from a Japanese national in 1996. Most of those animals were subsequently sold out of his Florida business. His acknowledged illegal activities involved the smuggling of more than 200 reptiles in total.

Crutchfield, who had been convicted in 1995 for smuggling endangered Fiji iguanas, was generally considered one of the largest reptile importers in the United States before he fled to Belize in the spring of 1997 after being notified by the Justice Department that he was again under investigation. Indicted in October 1997, he was expelled from Belize last August and arrested by Federal authorities in Miami when he returned to the United States.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.

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