Federal judge invalidates wildlife trade ban

Written by Staff Writer CNN’s Jim Sciutto A federal judge in San Francisco on Tuesday invalidated an International Traffic in Arms Treaty (ITAT) injunction that would have barred the government from using its sting…

Federal judge invalidates wildlife trade ban

Written by Staff Writer

CNN’s Jim Sciutto

A federal judge in San Francisco on Tuesday invalidated an International Traffic in Arms Treaty (ITAT) injunction that would have barred the government from using its sting operation to trade in and slaughter protected hippos for cocaine.

Judge William Alsup said the federal government’s crackdown on the interstate trafficking in hippos within the critical habitat for the endangered vaquita porpoise “seems like pretty much the closest thing we have to a national security issue” and pointed to U.S. protection for Florida’s Gatorland.

Alsup, in an order obtained by CNN, also pointed to the treaty’s 1997 enactment as Congress’s authority to pass laws to protect its wildlife, including importing contraband.

“Here,” Alsup wrote, “ITAT has no authority to limit United States customs law, as those related to the United States domestic commerce function.”

The special counsel’s office for the Justice Department, which represents the federal government in this case, said it is still reviewing the ruling and is not immediately commenting.

Richard Rubin, the founder of the nonprofit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has been spearheading a campaign to find and rescue hippos stranded on the side of a pipeline transporting cocaine from Mexico to the United States.

After receiving a tip on the drug traffickers, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed an undercover sting known as Operation Phytophat that allowed a local federal customs agent to free the animals from the panda-sized pipe and in turn arrest six alleged drug traffickers and seize narcotics.

The 15 hippos were trapped near Brownsville, Texas, on September 9, 2011, and were transporting a pound of pure cocaine worth around $500,000. The smugglers had up to 12 metric tons of cocaine in a hidden vault in the U.S. portion of their smuggling vessel, US Customs and Border Protection Special Agent Jonathan Cohen said in a video statement at the time.

The smuggling operation was highly coordinated, legal and used technology, Cohen said, although he could not comment specifically on how the smugglers were apprehended.

Cohen said the animals appeared in Mexican waters in November 2010. Local authorities tried to negotiate a treaty with the Mexican navy to free the hippos, but they were forced to capture them after they were abandoned. They were taken to one of Texas’ more than a dozen wildlife refuges to be rehabilitated.

The hippos were still alive when they arrived. Scientists and veterinarians worked for days to save their lives before returning them to Texas. They were healthy and in their natural habitat when they were released a year later.

Sea Shepherd, which has been documenting efforts to save the porpoise through a petition and a fundraising site, used some of the hippos as a publicity stunt last week by building a temporary pool that inspired long distance swimmers to swim from San Francisco to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

“What you’re seeing here is an important precedent,” Rubin said. “If we’re allowed to photograph traffickers, then Customs and Border Protection (agents) will have to release them. It’s a major issue when it comes to responsible drug smuggling.”

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