Stevens Point, Wis. — Sitting in a room with dangerous wildlife smugglers who are about to be arrested, and eventually put in prison, is not for the faint of heart. For Tim Santel, it was business as usual.
Santel, 58, a 1987 graduate in wildlife ecology from UW-Stevens Point, was in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Special Investigations Unit, a nation-wide task force focused on the biggest and most complex criminal wildlife investigations.
He retired in 2020 and now lives in rural Kentucky, but continues to work as a consultant, instructing law enforcement officers around the world.
Santel began his 33-year career as a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, then became a wildlife inspector for the USFWS in Massachusetts. When illegal uses of wildlife raised a red flag, he became an agent in the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement to work as special agent in charge of the elite Special Investigations Unit.
He recalls taking classes by Prof. Christine Thomas, retired dean of the UW-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources, the late UW-SP dean, Dan Trainer, as well as Prof. Ray Anderson. Other UW-Stevens Point classmates also went on to become USFWS agents, or work for other natural resources agencies.
“I went there under the premise that I would be a wildlife biologist,” Santel said.
However, he found he could do things to correct some of the wrongs he saw by working in law enforcement.
“I grew up on a farm in Illinois. My dad was an avid sportsman and hunter. He was extremely ethical and we always did everything by the rules,” he said.
Santel always wanted to work in the outdoors and to try to make a difference.
“I have kids and they love the outdoors like I do,” he said. “I’ve seen wetlands being drained and animals being slaughtered, so I’m just trying to do my small part and hopefully make a difference.”
High profile special cases
Santel’s Special Investigation Unit was involved with several high-profile cases: Operation Crash, Operation Snow Plow, Operation Manhattan and Operation Apex.
The results from the six-year Operation Crash? More than 42 people were convicted of illegally trafficking rhino horns, resulting in more than $7 million in fines and restitution, and more than 500 months in federal prison.
Operation Crash (crash is a group of rhinos) involved investigations into several types of criminal conduct, including: trafficking of raw rhino horns; smuggling of art objects made from rhino horn and elephant ivory; the illegal trade of modern rhino horn and ivory carvings being trafficked as antiques, and investigations of illegal hunting and poaching, including the sale of outfitting services for the illegal take of rhinoceros. Charges included conspiracy, smuggling, money laundering, mail fraud, tax evasion, and false documents.
In one instance, Santel (working undercover) met with Zhifei Li, one of the largest Chinese rhino horn smugglers who came into the United States ostensibly to seek medical assistance.
Li bought illegal rhino horns from Santel at a Miami Beach hotel for $59,000 and after being arrested in the hotel parking lot and found guilty in federal court, was sentenced to 70 months in prison and forfeited $3.5 million.
Another case, Operation Snow Plow, involved illegal killing and sales of tigers, leopards, lions, and other big cats that were being killed for their skins, meat, and skulls. The case included the investigation of eight tigers, originating from Wisconsin, that were slaughtered inside a trailer in the shark finning, drug trafficking, Chicago area. and money laundering.
That 18-month investigation resulted in federal charges being filed against 17 defendants in six states – Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan, and Illinois.
Tigers are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Although federal regulations allow possession of captive-bred tigers, the regulations stipulate activities involving their use must be to enhance the propagation or survival of the species. It is unlawful to kill the animals for profit, or to sell their hides, parts or meat in interstate commerce.
Results from Operation Snow Plow and Operation Crash led to the creation of the Captive Wildlife Safety Act and the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking. The work opened the public’s eyes to problems of wildlife trafficking.
President Barrack Obama and President Donald Trump issued executive orders protecting wildlife, and the USFWS began putting attaches around the world to work on wildlife problems. Many states began to ban rhino and ivory sales. The white rhino was added to the federal Threatened Species List with the black rhino, because there was very little difference between the two that allowed people to escape prosecution.
Santel also was part of Operation Apex, which helped to disrupt an international conspiracy of illegal drugs and wildlife sales in Florida and California. In this joint operation between the USFWS, Department of Justice, and Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, indictments were issued for mail fraud, wildlife trafficking,
Tense times undercover
Santel said the investigators are highly trained and take many precautions, knowing they are dealing with criminals who are involved in criminal organizations moving hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“You prepare for the worst, and hope for the best,” Santel said. “The really bad guys aren’t dumb enough to tell you what they are doing, so undercover operations are a necessity to get the evidence needed for prosecutions, but you can often find yourself in dangerous situations. It isn’t for everybody.
“The important part of working undercover is being able to think quickly on your feet,” he said. “It’s all about being believable, and you’ve got to know what you’re doing. You’ve got to check off all the boxes, obtain evidence, and not be nervous all while maintaining your cover.”
He knew getting into this line of work would keep him away from his family for many weeks.
He has worked around the world with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigating hunting camps, as well as throughout Africa in places such as Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Botswana, and South Africa. He has worked in Hungary, United Kingdom, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand on smuggling, corruption, and bribery crimes involving wildlife.
Nearly 20 years ago, Santel put on the first wildlife law enforcement course for the International Law Enforcement Academy in Africa, and since has trained hundreds of enforcement people in dozens of countries about international wildlife trafficking.
“Part of the challenge of wildlife investigation is that many times our only witnesses are ‘critters,’” he said. “It makes it challenging, but we do similar enforcement work as in a homicide crime scene investigation, including using a wildlife forensics lab to analyze ballistics, blood work, and DNA.”
Santel and his team received the 2016 Samuel J. Heyman People’s Choice Award for their work on Operation Crash. This award is considered the “Emmy of Government Service.”
Santel has received many awards for his work, the most recent being the prestigious 2021 Guy Bradley Award, which is named for the first federal wildlife officer killed in the line of duty. The award is made to recognize extraordinary individuals who have made an outstanding lifetime contribution to wildlife law enforcement, wildlife forensics and investigative techniques.
The Bradley award included $2,500, which Santel donated to the Nashville Zoo that is heavily involved in conservation efforts. The zoo used the money to buy a Motus tower, now used to help identify migrating birds.
“In the 10 years running the special investigations unit I had some of the best investigators in the USFWS. They were dedicated and passionate. I appreciate all who worked for me and, like the manager of a baseball team, when you have great players they can make you look really good,” he said.
Santel is known for thinking out-of-the-box, and when he brought violators to justice he asked that restitution money be earmarked for conservation efforts. One example was having more than $380,000 in wildlife fines go to the Sera Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya that created a new sanctuary for black rhinos. In 2015, he learned that effort was rewarded with the birth of the first black rhino calf at Sera. Since then there have been several black rhino calves born at this sanctuary, a true success story.
Other wildlife fines have been directed to anti-poaching efforts and the money and gold they seized in Operation Crash has been used to help black rhinos in Kenya and Zambia, and address poaching in Africa and Asia.
Some of his investigations have involved rhino horns, elephant ivory, tiger skins, shark fins, and pangolin scales. All are involved in international crime and involve big money. The biggest problem Santel sees involving international wildlife crime is technology and social media, which has made it much easier for “bad guys” to traffic wildlife. Violators can go on the “dark web” and sell illegal wildlife around the world.
Today, Santel also is concerned with what he sees is the lack of interest in hunting.
“It seems the younger people don’t realize the importance hunting plays in wildlife management, and sometimes it is easy to advocate for things that are actually detrimental to wildlife species,” he said.
Some of his other concerns, include:
• The judicial system and lack of teeth in many laws;
• People wanting to own and keep large endangered wildlife;
• The importance of fair chase and ethics when dealing with wildlife.
“Unfortunately, if something has a value, people will usually kill it. They are fueled by greed,” he said.
Santel has admiration for the many state and federal wildlife officers who set a high standard before him, and for great prosecutors willing to take a chance on wildlife cases that are complex and maybe somewhat out of the norm.