Gorilla Warfare

Vilified by animal protectionists, indicted for smuggling, praised by the feds. Matthew Block surprised everyone. Maybe even himself.

The Bangkok Six were captured on Borneo, probably sometime late in 1989. From Borneo, those knowledgeable about the case say the animals were likely sent by boat to Singapore, where they were packed in bird crates at Honey Pets Centre, a business owned by animal dealer James Lee. Schafer took over from there; he sat in the Singapore airport restaurant, conspicuously reading a newspaper as a signal for two men with the crates to approach him. He didn't know who the men were, but he did remember seeing one of them several months earlier at an animal dealer's compound in Jakarta.

The orangutans' ultimate destination was Moscow; the then-Soviet Union's state-operated animal importing company had been trying for months to acquire several of the affectionate, round-eyed creatures. An earlier attempt to fly the six orangutans directly from Singapore to Moscow had failed, whereupon Schafer contacted Victor Buljovic, director of the Belgrade Zoo, who agreed to help route the shipment through Yugoslavia in exchange for two gibbons.

The inspectors who pried the crates open in Bangkok knew none of this, however; nor did the reporters who wrote about the ugly find, or the international wildlife preservation organizations that quickly alerted their members. But authorities had little trouble tying the shipment to Schafer; he eventually paid a $1200 fine in Singapore and resumed his bird-dealing in Bangkok, for which he had a legal permit.

Then, says Schafer, German wildlife officials called him. They'd never had much interest in him before, but his involvement in the aborted Bangkok Six scheme caught their attention within 48 hours. "They said, 'Listen, if you start dealing with [endangered] monkeys, we're going to give you problems,'" Schafer recalls. "'You have to come tell us what happened.' I agreed secretly. I flew to Germany to meet with them a week or ten days later." Schafer's information implicated many of the players in the elaborate network, chiefly Block.

The Germans shared their information with Shirley McGreal, the outspoken chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League in Summerville, South Carolina. McGreal then badgered U.S. authorities to begin an investigation of Block. As part of that investigation, two U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents traveled to Germany to interview Schafer, and promised him limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for his cooperation.

In February 1992, two years after the smuggling plot was discovered, a Miami federal grand jury indicted Block on four counts of violating U.S. and international wildlife trafficking laws A two misdemeanors and two felonies. The other participants in the scheme Schafer had named, none U.S. citizens, were not named in the indictment. Block's trial was initially scheduled for July 6, then delayed to August 24.

Witnesses for both the defense and the prosecution stayed in Miami for several days after Hurricane Andrew while attorneys tried to figure out if a trial could take place before the witnesses had to return to their respective homes. But the courts, like the rest of posthurricane Miami, were barely functioning. Home the witnesses went, despite defense worries that bringing them back to Miami at some future date would be prohibitively expensive. U.S. District Judge James W. Kehoe rescheduled the trial for the end of December.

Unknown to almost everyone, though, Matthew Block by the end of September had worked out a deal with federal prosecutors: he agreed to plead guilty to the two misdemeanor counts in the indictment and to cooperate fully with the government, including answering questions about other participants in the Indonesia-to-Moscow pipeline. Even though the deal was exceptionally sweet for Block, prosecutors thought the government also would benefit from his worldwide connections in a notoriously stealthy business. And both sides agreed that the possible penalties, under federal sentencing guidelines, wouldn't be much different whether Block pleaded guilty to misdemeanors or to felonies.

Prosecutors now say they cloaked the plea agreement in secrecy so that Block's new ties to the government would not become known to any prospective smuggler who might want to contact him about an illegal deal.

Block is the owner of Worldwide Primates in Miami, one of the largest animal-import businesses in the world. According to estimates by the International Primate Protection League (IPPL), which monitors wildlife transactions, Block's company imports about fifteen percent of all the monkeys used in the U.S. for scientific research. "Totally legal," stressed Miami attorney Jon Sale during a December court hearing at which he represented Block. "Controversial, similar to the abortion issue. There are a lot of people who will protest. They are saying this is animal cruelty...but he has a right to be in this business, and that is not a crime."

Over the years, Block has had some run-ins with law enforcement authorities, but he's never been prosecuted. In 1986 officials in Bolivia seized his passport in connection with the shipment of 361 monkeys from La Paz to Miami. He was filling an order from the U.S. Agency for International Development for several hundred monkeys to be used in research to develop a vaccine for malaria. Eventually Block was able to escape prosecution in Bolivia when U.S. officials issued him an identification document that allowed him to leave the country.

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