[Game Warden Archives]

Operation Ocelot



By Ian Huggett and Kim Deschenes

The emerging environmental consciousness of North Americans in the last decade has not yet squelched illegal trade in endangered fur-bearing animals.

Investigations into furrier businesses by the independent Eco-Watch organization two years ago established that the following underground activities were occurring in Canada and elsewhere in the world:

  • So-called reputable furriers were still dealing commercially in endangered species,
  • Endangered species were readily being transported internationally without Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) permits,
  • Ocelots were still being trapped in the wild by poachers for exclusive European and North American markets,
  • Principle suppliers exist in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Mexico and New York,
  • Existing legislation and enforcement has been inadequate in preventing the illegal sale of endangered species and their derivatives.

Eco-Watch came to these conclusions following Operation Ocelot, an investigation into the possible importation and sale of endangered fur bearing animals for the fashion industry. The investigation was conducted in the Ottawa area over a six-month period between February and June, 1996.

Two undercover Eco-watch investigators began by revealing the commercial sale of ocelot (Felis pardalis) and margay (Felis wiedii). The two endangered South/Central American wild cats are listed in Appendix 1 of CITES.

Investigators wanted to: determine if the trade in these species was continuing, to identify the location and identity of overseas suppliers, to gather sufficient evidence to allow appropriate enforcement officials to intervene and lay charges and to publicize any prosecutions as a deterrent to other potential traffickers. Ocelot in native habitat

The operation could not receive legal support by legitimate law enforcement agencies such as the RCMP or the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) because civilian investigators lacked enforcement capabilities and legal training to complete an investigation successfully.

Under assumed identities, two investigators, posing as a married couple seeking to purchase a fur coat, made contact with a commercial furrier.

The investigator made initial contact by phone to the furrier's daughter who was a salesperson at the store. He asked if their establishment could provide a cat fur coat for his wife. The clerk explained that jaguar and tiger were no longer available but they could still obtain ocelot. She said that a customer had been shown one only last week.

Subsequent research revealed that at the time of the investigation the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Inter-provincial Trade Act (WAPPRIITA) had yet to be proclaimed. It later came into force on May 14, 1996.

The ocelot is a small 20-40 lb. South/Central American spotted cat. It was placed on CITES Appendix I (rare or endangered; trade prohibited for commercial purposes) in 1987. Prior to that date it was classified as an Appendix II species; trade was permitted with an appropriate export permit. By 1991, all species of wild cats were subsequently placed on Appendix I.

The pair of investigators made an appointment with the furrier to inspect some ocelot skins which he was to acquire from a Montreal supplier for their examination.

A third investigator stationed in Montreal was assigned to contact furriers advertised in the yellow pages to determine if any would blatantly offer the sale of ocelot over the phone. In this instance 11 Montreal suppliers were contacted. One admitted to be able to secure ocelot skins on consignment.

According to one supplier a single ocelot skin fetches $600 to $700. Several animals are used to fabricate a coat. Although no furrier was willing to provide a price estimate, the price range for an ocelot fur coat could range from $15,000 to $30,000 and perhaps more.

A list of objectives was used to determine if this furrier was in fact dealing commercially with endangered species. In order to verify this a number of import/export technicalities were ruled out which could render the sale legitimate.

The interview between the agents and the furrier was designed to establish:

  • the skins' authenticity,
  • the age of the skins (if they were taken and imported before 1987 e.g. prelisting Appendix I; in which case the possession would be legal),
  • to view any permits with specific attention to the supplier's name, date of entry, country of origin, species name and signatory.(for supporting evidence and leads to other suppliers)

The first meeting between the couple and the furrier took place in February, 1996. The furrier was supposed to display a bundle of skin samples obtained from Montreal. However, during that appointment the skins never appeared and the furrier admitted the samples he had ordered were "no good," referring to the fact that the skin colors or "spots" didn't match. He claimed that ocelot were found on Appendix II, and with no prompting explained the CITES classification for endangered species. All other fur businesses except one in Montreal acknowledged that ocelot was endangered and unobtainable.

The furrier went on to describe "the good old days" in the 1970s when his business sold "car loads" of jaguar, tiger and other "gorgeous" cats. These animals were no longer available, except for ocelot which was still not endangered, he claimed. He said he did not deal with endangered species at any price. But if ocelots existed on the world market, he could get them. It was a function of price. Ocelot

Another aborted shipment was scheduled to arrive in Ottawa from Montreal on Feb. 13. But the investigators were told over the phone by the owner's daughter that her father had decided to request a bundle from a New York supplier instead. It was expected to arrive in Canada the week of Feb. 19, 1996.

This gave the investigators time to notify customs officials to confiscate the skins at the border. An alert was released to all ports of entry from New York into Ontario via Agriculture Canada's "dead animal section." The Canadian Export/Import Permits Act should prevent entry of ocelot furs for commercial purposes into Canada. Although this would effectively suppress the operation, it was decided that since WAPPRIITA was not yet in force, the Export/Import Permits Act was likely the only definitive means of confiscating the furs and laying charges. The shipment was not successfully intercepted.

During two separate visits to the store the investigators used a number of techniques to determine how endangered species like ocelot were being acquired and illegally imported to end up on the coat racks of "reputable" Canadian businesses.

Although the furrier was unable to locate quality ocelot skins from local suppliers, he apparently dealt with suppliers from around the world. He attempted to retrieve for display a customer's ocelot coat stored in the company's vault but returned empty-handed claiming there was only a jaguar, leopard and tiger coat in storage. But he admitted seeing an ocelot coat hanging in the office the previous week (corroborating the ocelot coat reference made by his daughter earlier in the investigation).

Although these wild cats are Appendix I species, without any physical means of aging the skins there is no method of gauging if they were killed and shipped into Canada before or after they were listed.

The furrier explained that unlike most furs used by the industry, cats had to be hunted. He justified the practice by explaining some animal populations are cyclical and disease could impact a population that was over-producing. He added that it wouldn't take much to unbalance the ecosystem.

He said that in the countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Argentina where the best skins originate, hunters send skins off to auction sales or sell them in private treaties.

The furrier revealed that the skins were being taken in their country of origin, and were not obtained from zoo stock.

By June 1996, five months into the operation, investigators were shown two ocelot skins. Ironically, a sales clerk inadvertently entered the display room with an arm full of margay fur coats - another endangered south/central American cat. When asked if they were made upstairs, the furrier said they were made during the period they operated a factory in Montreal.

Two skins hanging on a large metal ring were shown to the investigators on the retail shop's main floor. The investigators prompted the furrier to reveal details about the skins including the existence of legitimate CITES permits.

The investigator made it clear that he wanted proof he was purchasing an authentic ocelot coat for his spouse. The furrier responded that there was absolutely no documentation to verify the authenticity. He claimed that the only assurance would come from placing one's total faith in the furrier's reputation. He reiterated at least on four occasions that his suppliers would not provide any certificates or documents with their furs. He added that there was no need because a furrier is an expert (at identification).

The next task was to determine if the skins were old enough to have entered Canada before the ocelot was designated as an endangered species in 1987. The investigators pointed out some cracks on the underside of the skin and wanted to know how old they were and if the coat they ordered would be made of old skins. The furrier said the skin was about four years old, (killed around 1992, about five years after the ban) and that any coat we ordered would be of fresh stock.

The procedure to make the coat was to locate a supplier and negotiate a viable purchase price with the overseas supplier that was acceptable to the clients.

At this stage of negotiations it became clear that the ocelots would be sought from the furrier's international network of suppliers.

At this juncture, one investigator ascended to the furrier's private office to discuss price, at which time the furrier placed a call to a Swiss supplier. During the brief call, the furrier tersely attempted to convince the supplier that the ocelot was an Appendix II specie before hanging up. The furrier appeared to cover himself by saying he would check with the CITES office before shipping a bundle of skins. The investigators were assured they would be promptly notified when a supplier was located. The investigators believed they had gathered sufficient evidence to suggest that this business enterprise was willing to engage in the commercial distribution and retail of endangered species.

Approximately two weeks later, the furrier's daughter phoned one of the investigators and stated that the furs were unavailable because they were considered "endangered species". This coincided with a courtesy call by the RCMP who entered the premises shortly after being notified of the operation.

The police officers familiarized the shop owners of the regulations and restrictions affecting the sale of rare or endangered fur bearers. The officer declined to secure a search warrant, based on the possibility that the margay coats could have been procured before being designated as Appendix I species. It is unknown why the possession of the two ocelot skins did not warrant legal intervention.

Ian Hugget is Director of Eco-Watch, a private research group formed in 1990 which conducts independent investigations for the protection of wildlife and the environment. Eco-Watch cooperates with regional, provincial, and federal government and non-government agencies in wildlife and environmental research.