Tampa, Florida - Akbar Akram, a resident of Holiday, Florida, pleaded guilty Wednesday to illegally trafficking live water monitor lizards from the Philippines.
Akram, 44, pleaded guilty in Tampa before U.S. District Judge William F. Jung to one count of wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act.
According to plea documents, Akram admitted to illegally importing more than 20 live water monitor lizards from the Philippines between January and December 2016, in violation of United States law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Treaty. To avoid detection by U.S. customs authorities, the lizards were placed in socks, which were sealed closed with tape, and then concealed inside electronic equipment and shipped under a false label. The equipment was then shipped via commercial carriers to Akram’s associate, who resided in Massachusetts.
As part of his plea, Akram admitted that he knew the monitor lizards he received had been taken in violation of Philippine law, and that the import violated U.S. law. Akram also admitted that upon receiving the monitor lizards, he sold some of them to customers, including customers in Colorado, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
“Akram violated Philippine law and U.S. law by illegally trafficking live water monitor lizards,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to prosecute those who flout federal laws and seek to profit from trafficking protected species.”
“The illegal trafficking of protected species is a violation of federal law,” said U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez for the Middle District of Florida. “We will continue to work with our partners, nationally and internationally, to thwart these crimes.”
Monitor lizard is the common name for lizards comprising the genus Varanus. Monitor lizard species (there are approximately 70) are characterized by elongated necks, heavy bodies, long-forked tongues, strong claws, and long tails. Monitor lizards have a vast geographical range and are native to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Water monitor lizards are semi-aquatic monitor lizards endemic to South and Southeastern Asia. Water monitor lizards, as their name suggests, are water dependent and easily swim long distances. This ability has allowed them to inhabit many remote islands. Some species of water monitor lizard are common and abundant in the pet trade, while others are extremely rare and are found only on specific islands. In addition to suffering increasing habitat loss due to rainforest destruction, water monitor lizards are often illegally collected from the wild and killed for bush meat, traditional medicine, or for their skins. Water monitor lizards are also targeted for their popularity in the international exotic pet trade. Exotic pet traders seek these water monitor lizards due to their attractive patterns, unique colors, intelligence, and rarity. The yellow-headed water monitor (Varanus cumingi), the white-headed water monitor (Varanus nuchalis), and the marbled water monitor (Varanus marmoratus), are species of large monitor lizards endemic to the Philippines.
This case is part of Operation Sound of Silence, an ongoing effort by the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, in coordination with the Department of Justice, to prosecute those involved in the illegal taking and trafficking in protected species, including water monitor lizards.
The investigation was handled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, and the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section. The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Colin McDonell and Environmental Crimes Section Trial Attorney Gary N. Donner.