DEPARTMENTS - SUMMER 1996
Case In Point
OF IVORY AND ILLGOTTEN GAINS
by S.W.H. Webb
Much of the information appearing in this article was obtained by way of prosecution data and is a matter of court record.
On the evening of Sept. 29 1994, Constable Ken Chatel, a member of the RCMP Customs and Excise Section in Edmonton leaned back in his chair to catch the six o'clock news. One of the items that evening covered a police search of the home of Salim Kara, a city transit employee who was charged with stealing in excess of $2 million dollars from Light Rail Transit coffers.
As the camera panned the interior of the opulent residence on Osborne Crescent, several objects caught Chatel's eye and made him lean forward with renewed interest.
Chatel holds a Bachelor of Science Degree with majors in both Biology and Zoology, one of the few members of that agency with background and interest in this specialized field of law enforcement. In addition to this he had just one month earlier completed a oneweek training seminar in the identification of endangered species. The seminar was one of an ongoing series sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Glynco, Georgia and open to federal, state and provincial agencies.
The camera revealed two zebra skins on the walls and a threefoot carved tusk in a display cabinet. Depending upon the species of animal each item represented, it was possible that they were protected by international legislation.
Chatel immediately contacted Officer Drew Mahaffey with the Natural Resources Service (Fish and Wildlife) in Edmonton. Mahaffey has also maintained an interest and expertise in wildlife species beyond the borders of Alberta and is knowledgeable in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) legislation. Together they began to investigate the matter beginning with confirmation that the Edmonton Police Service had made a video of the contents of the residence at the time of the search.
On Oct. 4, Chatel viewed that video and found that in addition to the items first seen on television, there appeared to be several additional carvings in what looked to be ivory. The size of those objects led him to believe that they were elephant in origin and therefore required CITES documentation to make their possession in Canada legal.
The next step was to make a series of inquiries with a number of agencies to determine if documentation existed which could explain how Salim and his wife Almasbanu, came into possession of those items. Jean Robilard, with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Ottawa, was contacted and a check was made of import records. No such records were found. Similar checks with Canada Customs documents were made with similar results.
On Oct. 7, 1994, Ken obtained a search warrant for the Kara residence to examine the skins and carvings and personally determine their authenticity and origin. He found the skins to be those of Plains Zebra and not an endangered species. It is in fact the Mountain Zebra which holds this dubious distinction. The skins therefore were legal. The ivory however, proved to be elephant and therefore covered by CITES legislation. In all, five pieces were seized.
During the course of the investigation Almasbanu Kara had advised authorities that the ivory items had been purchased in Hawaii in 1984. She stated that while on vacation in that state with friends, she and Salim had come upon the carvings in a store in Honolulu. The items came to a total of $5,114 (US). Unable to come up with that amount in cash, they had convinced their friends to write a cheque on their behalf for the sum of $4,500 which they subsequently repaid.
Due to the time lapse between the importation of the ivory and its discovery, the statute of limitations had expired and charges could not be laid in relation to CITES legislation. However, Section 54(1), illegal possession of wildlife or exotic animal under the Alberta Wildlife Act, in conjunction with Section 13(1) of the General Wildlife Regulations, made their possession in Alberta illegal. A search warrant was issued to Officer Mahaffey to remove the items from the RCMP, take custody of them, and to begin prosecution under Section 54(1).
Criminal charges against Salim Kara in relation to the theft of LRT funds were concluded before the wildlife matter was brought before Judge Plomp in Edmonton on April 3, 1996. Kara had at that time begun serving a fouryear sentence following his conviction for the theft. On speaking to the matter, his lawyer stated the reason no declaration was made at the time the pieces were brought into Canada was because her client did not wish to pay duty on the items. It was a defence that did not appear to impress Judge Plomp nor address the real issue.
In making his ruling he admonished Salim Kara at length, bringing up the fact that since he (Salim) was Ugandaborn, he of all persons should recognize and appreciate the plight of elephants in Africa.
In speaking to the matter he said,"Mr. Kara, someone coming from Africa is just as much aware of the concern about the loss of the elephant herds in the world as someone raised in Canada who has never seen an elephant in the wild. You would know that better than I, better than anyone in the courtroom. So when you purchased these items you knew that they were illegal, you know that as well as I do."
When assessing the maximum fine of $2,500 under that section, he stated he wished a higher fine was possible due to the seriousness of the crime. In addition to that sum, Salim was given a onemonth jail sentence added to the four years being served. In most cases where this type of penalty is added, the person convicted is allowed to serve the time concurrent, or along with, the original sentence as opposed to having it added on to the end of the sentence. Kara was not afforded this consideration. Furthermore, Judge Plomp ruled that if the fine was not paid, an additional four months would be added to that already imposed.
At the time this article was written, Kara is serving his sentences.
It should be noted that despite obvious public concern for threatened species worldwide, this is only the second conviction of its type in Canada and the first in Alberta.
(S.W.H. Webb is District Fish and Wildlife Officer, Calgary Metro.)