Article reprinted from May 1999Canadian Geographic Magazine
Hunting poachers Ontario sets its sights on wildlife traffickers By Pauline Comeau
TIME: Midnight . . . DATE:October 8, 1996 . . . LOCATION: Near the Gravel River Provincial Nature Reserve in Northern Ontario.
There are only forest beasts and the gods to bear witness on this cool night as five pallbearers shuffle through a jack pine plantation, far from the road¹s prying eyes. The procession is slow and awkward as each man struggles with his fistful of orange tarp and the 225-kilogram bulk jostling between them.
Now the real work begins. The tarp is opened to reveal a sad excuse for a bull moose. Its eyes are dull and its gaping stomach cavity, devoid of fluids and viscera, is drying. It is a young animal two years old at most, about the size of a small horse, and some previous mishap has left it missing one antler. Not much of a find by most counts, but pay dirt for these Ontario conservation officers who are at the apex of a sting operation and one of the most complex poaching investigations in the province¹s history.
The conservation officers hope to trace the planted bull moose through DNA tests to a $70-a-plate Toronto-area banquet where more than 1,200 people will be served up to a dozen deer and moose plus other wild game. Selling wild meat or otherwise using it for proffit contravenes Ontario¹s Game and Fish Act. You cannot even use wild game "in the hope for financial gain." The deer and wild boar on the banquet menu could be farmed animals, but moose is not farmed in Canada. If moose will be served, it will be wild.
The contents of several white bags moose guts are dumped in a pile nearby. The goal at this moment is to "make things bloody and fresh looking," explains Paul Dennis, a conservation officer for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources in Terrace Bay. He and long-time partner Mike Kenny are the lead investigators on the case. Their accomplices are undercover conservation officers who have been posing as hunters at a lodge on the north shore of Lake Superior.
The team is staging the kind of kill site that typically occurs after a legitimate hunter shoots a moose, guts it, leaves the carcass where it fell, and goes for help to haul it out of the bush.
Removing the guts slows decomposition of the meat.
The next day, the suspects will be lured here. The undercover officers have posed as hunters who have a licence to hunt a moose calf. The suspects are licensed to kill both a bull and a calf, but are particularly in search of the meatier bull to help supply a banquet. The investigators have promised to hand over a bull if they come across one. In exchange the suspects have agreed to hand over a calf to the investigators. (This stretches the legality of "party hunting," where a group of hunters pools licences and works the same area at the same time.)
Kenny and Dennis had begun the day making phone calls and sending e-mail queries throughout Northern Ontario. The first request was for a recently killed bull moose. By midday, they had a line on an illegally hunted bull confiscated by MNR at Foleyet, 350 kilometres southeast of Terrace Bay. But the animal had been gutted and hung. Guts would be needed to stage a believable sting. Another request went out, this time for fresh viscera. The Geraldton office, about 110 kilometres north, came through with a recently killed cow moose with, as Kenny delicately describes it, "guts cookin¹ inside." Dennis headed southeast to pick up the bull while Kenny went north to scoop guts into bags.
The next day, the suspects took the bait with barely a pause and were soon on their way back to Toronto with the moose. "It was probably the best, most successful plan we have ever hatched," says Kenny.
It had taken four years of investigative work to get that moose to that site on that night. It was another two years before the case made it to court. Such painstaking efforts challenge anyone who believes Ontario is not serious about crimes against natural resources. MNR, as they say, will do almost anything to get their man.
Poaching the taking of a wild animal outside of federal, provincial or territorial hunting rules is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide. The most commonly poached species in Canada are deer, moose, bear and fish. But there are also markets for bighorn sheep, elk, reptiles and amphibians, even eider ducks. Estimates of how many animals are taken illegally vary widely. Some say it is impossible to know. One report suggests that "fewer than 10 percent of poaching offences are detected."
Whatever the figures, poaching in Canada is rarely considered a serious threat to the survival of an entire species. "If you look at the broad scale, do we have lots of moose, do we have lots of walleye in Ontario? Yes, we do," says Mike Morencie, head of MNR¹s Special Investigations Unit (SIU). Trouble can arise, however, when poaching is coupled with other stresses, such as habitat loss caused by development or natural disasters.
Black bears are perhaps the best-known victims of commercialized poaching in Canada. Bear paws and gallbladders are in great demand in South Korea, China and Japan where the paws are considered a delicacy and the bile is used in medicines and other products. The Asiatic black bear, sun bear, sloth bear, giant panda and two populations of brown bear are listed as endangered or threatened under the Convention on International Trade for Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The shortage has led to increased bear-poaching pressure throughout Canada and the United States, which has some groups warning of a pending crisis among some of North America¹s bear populations.
"There is evidence in some provinces that some individuals involved in the trade have made a business of procuring and distributing bear parts, and have well-developed networks to carry out these activities, both in Canada and abroad," says biologist Joan Gregorich in a 1997 study on poaching in Canada prepared for the Canadian Wildlife Federation. A priority for policy makers, she concludes, should be to ensure the country¹s black bear population estimated as high as 422,000 remains healthy.
Governments have another reason to be vigilant about enforcing wildlife laws: Canada¹s hunting industry is estimated to be worth $300 million each year to the economy. Today, bear, moose and deer hunting activities add $136 million to Ontario¹s economy alone.
Government downsizing in recent years forced a re-evaluation of how Ontario protects its natural resources, says John Chevalier, manager of MNR¹s enforcement program. What did they find? "We had conservation officers running around the province doing what they thought was important and needed to be done," he says. Licence and weapons violations and prosecution of small-scale poaching operators were the norm.
Meanwhile, across Canada conservation officers were reporting an increase in encounters with more seasoned criminals, often with a history of violence and links to organized crime. Poachers were also working with sophisticated equipment aircraft, devices for night hunting, and scanners enabling them to eavesdrop on law enforcement communications.
"Poaching in Canada is carried out at a much higher level than most wildlife managers appreciate," notes Gregorich. "About 60 percent of poachers are people who are involved in other criminal activities, such as trafficking in drugs and smuggling contraband across Canadian borders. Possession of prohibited weapons, break and enters, theft, and major traffic offences can be added to this list of criminal activity."
Ontario, and several other provinces, decided it was time to focus more attention on catching those involved in the commercialization selling, bartering, buying of large amounts of wild meat and the smaller but highly lucrative sale of animal parts antler velvet, seal penises and bear gallbladders.
Morencie¹s investigations unit was expanded. Today, the SIU has 20 investigators and support staff, almost triple the complement of three years ago. In turn, the supporting cast in the field 266 conservation officers were given better equipment and training. These days, their activities range from investigating a restaurant serving a $450 bear paw stew for two to investigating people for illegally cutting trees.
I believe in hunting," says Kenny. "I believe it can be done ethically and I believe wildlife can be conserved in the face of it, providing it is for personal use. But like anything else, there is the element of the bad guy, and that¹s what we concentrate on."
Dennis and Kenny have patrolled their 24,000-hectare territory around Terrace Bay (pop. 2,300) for more than a decade. Early in their careers, hunters circumventing the rules would be regular folk caught carrying loaded weapons in vehicles, night hunting with spotlights, or drinking and driving. Those people are still there, they say. But now, Kenny and Dennis are increasingly called upon to solve more complex cases where the evidence may include a black bear dumped in the woods minus a gallbladder, paws or head, a deer gut pile found outside hunting season, or a deserted bear-baiting station. The officers now approach their work in entirely new ways.
Cases can start simply, they say. Someone may report a neighbour who has come into possession of an animal under suspicious circumstances. Ravens hovering over the woods can lead field officers to a gut pile or deserted kill. A highway spot-check can turn up evidence of suspiciously high hunting success rates. In Terrace Bay, an ethical hunter has a 25-percent chance at best of shooting a moose during the nine-week fall season. A hunter or hunting party found with too many carcasses could be involved in unethical hunting practices. Spotting an animal with bullet holes between the eyes suggests either the hunter was a remarkable marksman, or more likely, hunting at night. "You shine a light, the moose¹s eyes reflect, they are blinded, and it¹s the only spot you can aim at," says Dennis.
Until this year, suspicions triggered by such discoveries would be filed for future reference, a flag that those hunters should be watched closely if they returned to the area the following season. Ontario¹s six-month statute of limitations meant evidence gathered during one hunting season could not be added to charges laid in the next. But a new act, proclaimed earlier this year, extends the statute to two years, allows fines up to $100,000 and, for the first time, jail sentences (up to two years) for poaching offences.
The Gravel River moose investigation was triggered by a poster advertising an annual banquet featuring wild game. Morencie¹s interest was piqued by the possibility of more than 1,200 people feasting on poached meat. Other poachers in Ontario have been responsible for killing more animals, he says, but this case appeared to involve more money than usual estimated profits from the event were between $50,000 and $150,000.
This was one of the first investigations from the expanded SIU to make its way through the courts. Like so many SIU cases, this one involved officials from several jurisdictions. Municipal police helped execute warrants, while provincial and federal officials stepped in to help with tax, liquor-licence and anti-racketeering laws. (There was a rafße and casino at the banquet.) Then there were the forensic experts.
DNA testing is probably the most significant development on the enforcement side of conservation management this decade. New techniques particularly the polymerase chain reaction, which allows scientists to grow readable DNA patterns from minuscule tissue samples can now connect a single drop of blood or a sliver of tissue on a hunter¹s clothing to a felled animal or gut pile, and lead to a conviction.
For this work, MNR turns to forensic scientists Brad White and Paul Wilson at Trent University¹s Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory. White began working on wildlife forensics in the late 1980s. In 1991, his McMaster University lab became the first in North America to present wildlife DNA evidence in a courtroom. These days, their primary caseload involves moose and deer. "The most-often-asked question is: did tissue associated with a suspected poacher blood on his weapon or his vehicle, or meat in a freezer originate from an illegal kill site," says Wilson.
The Terrace Bay case offered another challenge: could DNA evidence collected from the moose carcass in Northern Ontario be linked to cooked meat taken surreptitiously by undercover officers at the banquet? White and Wilson weren¹t sure. So, in the months leading to the 1996 hunting season, Kenny and Dennis cooked.
"We sent the lab three different samples on three different occasions batches of cooked moose meat," says Dennis, laughing. "We cooked it medium, like shoe leather, and half raw. We had every possible combination of cooked moose meat with spices, pepper, chili peppers and everything else." The lab obtained readable DNA from the majority of the samples.
Another area of significant DNA work underway at Trent, says Wilson, is the mapping of domestic and wild populations of Ontario deer and other species. Eventually, this will help in cases where a suspect insists the animal in his possession came from a farm. Wilson says the mapping is an evolving process and years from being ready to use.
Evidence collected for DNA analysis can help solve a case without the sample even getting to the lab. "People see you gathering evidence," says Kenny, "and ask what you¹re doing." When suspects are told DNA samples are being collected, the evasion often ends. "They¹ll say, OAh, to hell with it. I¹ll tell you what happened.¹"
Not every case, of course, has a perfect ending. Five months after the Terrace Bay moose was planted, several warrants were executed at businesses and homes in greater Toronto. More than 300 kilograms of freeze-dried meat and stacks of financial documents were seized. But the defence successfully argued that no profit had been made because the wild meat had been donated from various sources and the banquet admission price just covered other expenses. The result was a handful of convictions for possession of game unlawfully hunted and for serving wild game. Hunting prohibitions and $9,000 in fines were levied, far below what prosecutors had sought. MNR is appealing the case, which they estimate cost them $25,000.
Oh, and that planted, one-antlered moose? They never did track it to the banquet.
Skeptics might wonder if the SIU¹s resources are being well-spent, but Morencie has no doubts. The measure of success is not fines levied, he says. "I need to make sure the money funneled in is going toward a good investigation and a proper cause," he says. "I can¹t predict what the courts are going to do."
And fines in several recent cases indicate the courts are taking poaching crimes more seriously. "Five years ago, it was not uncommon for some courts to consider wildlife offences on a par with minor traffic violations," says Gregorich. Today, there is "evidence that the judiciary is becoming better educated about the seriousness of wildlife crime and is meting out appropriate sentences."
The deterrent value of court cases and convictions is key to MNR¹s enforcement strategy, says Morencie. "We want to send a message that we are not prepared to allow this to go on."
Pauline Comeau is a senior editor with Canadian Geographic.