In October 2012, US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) Law Enforcement began detaining trophies imported from newly opened Liberia. They detained some and formally seized others. In effect, it became a blockade. Conservation Force has done all that it could for the past 16 months to determine the reason for the seizures, to prevent the forfeitures during the interim, and to clear the apparent USFWS blockade of all trophies being imported from Liberia. Case-by-case, the logjam of problems was finally cleared in the first few months of 2014.
The problems have been identified and all but one hunter’s trophies have been released. The first and worst problem was that USFWS Law Enforcement thought the hunting was illegal because it had been closed and the CITES trophy export permits had a number of errors and omissions. This was made worse by the refusal of Law Enforcement to even respond to inquiries about why trophies were being detained and/or seized. Under the provisions of the Service Manual the inspector is supposed to provide a detailed narrative when a trophy is detained and a second detailed narrative in the Notice of Proposed Seizure and Forfeiture. USFWS Service Manual, Part 443 (Law Enforcement), Chapter 1 (Wildlife Inspection Policy and Procedures) 1.15, 1.16, 1.17 and 50 CFR 14.53, Detention and refusal of clearance, 12.11 and 12.23 – all require a narrative explaining “why” the detention or seizure and also mandate certain deadlines for providing “why” the import is refused. That was not provided in any of the cases, and the seizing agent would not respond to phone messages and emails. This was made worse by a change in both the Regional Solicitor and the Resident Agent in Charge of Law Enforcement. The whole thing was handled very poorly by the Service. Because there was no descriptive narrative of the factual basis of the alleged general violations of law, the errors in the export permitting could not be identified or corrected. Liberia issued amended export permits that were not accepted because there was no USFWS narrative explanation of why the export permits were considered invalid, if that was the problem at all.
The permitting problems were omissions that were rather simple to correct had they been identified. They arose only because the Liberian CITES authorities had no experience with export of hunting trophies. The Law Enforcement tone, speculation and accusations that hunting was not open and that the authorities were acting fraudulently only made resolution more difficult.
Conservation Force was concerned that the trophy blockade would discourage the experimental opening of hunting in Liberia, thus we did everything we could to identify and solve the problems. All (legal) representation has been a free, public service to the US hunters and Liberia because of the importance to the hunting and conservation community. Had we not intervened, most of the trophies would have been forfeited. But for the petitions for remission that Conservation Force filed, there would be no explanation of the detentions and seizures (though a year late) so that Liberia and the hunting community could take corrective measures. The trophies that were detained indefinitely without proper notice or explanation would no doubt have been seized and forfeited as well.
The caveat to hunters and their brokers is that export permits from newly opened countries must be examined space-by-space for completeness and errors. CITES export permitting requires experience. Of course, USFWS Law Enforcement performance did not help.