2017-07-19 / Front Page

LIC Gallery Owner, Salesman Charged With Trafficking Ivory

By Liz Goff
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) commissioner Basil Seggos last week announced that a Long Island City gallery owner and a salesperson for the appointment-only business have been charged with illegally selling a ballerina sculpture made with elephant ivory to state undercover investigators for more than $2,500.

Elephants are listed as an endangered species, and the sale of more than $1,500 worth of products made from elephant ivory, without first having obtained a DEC license or permit, is a felony.

Robert Rogal, 70, owner of Ro Gallery at 47-16 36th Street in Long Island City, and salesman Jaime Villamarin, 45, were arraigned in Queens Criminal Court on July 7th on a complaint charging them with two violations of New York State Environmental Laws that ban the sale of elephant and mammoth ivory and rhinoceros horns, Brown said. The defendants each face up to four years in prison, if convicted.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced and signed the new law in 2014, effectively banning the sale of ivory products and strengthening criminal and civil penalties for buyers and sellers whose actions are endangering the elephant population worldwide, Brown said.

The law allows for limited exception on products such as antiques determined to be at least 100 years old containing less than 20 per cent of ivory.

According to the complaint, two undercover DEC investigators visited Ro Gallery on May 30, 2017, where they met with Villamarin who allegedly showed them two ballerina sculptures – both allegedly made with ivory.

Brown said Villamarin allegedly told the investigators at that time, “These are ivory, but we don’t list them as such because you can’t sell ivory.” Following this visit, one of the investigators followed up via email to the Ro Gallery and was given a specific price for the artwork, Brown said.

The investigators returned to the Ro Gallery on June 14, where they met with Rogal and paid $2,612 in cash for a ballerina sculpture. During that visit, Rogal showed the investigators another piece, priced at $3,600, and willingly stated, “I believe it is ivory” and “they don’t even allow the sale of them (ivory).” Brown said. The investigators left the gallery with the ballerina sculpture and had it examined by an expert who determined it was made from authentic ivory, Brown explained.

A court ordered search warrant was executed at Ro Gallery on July 6, at which time law enforcement officials recovered several sculptures made with ivory, as well as artifacts believed to be made from the tooth of a sperm whale and the skin of a crocodile, Brown said. Forensic analysis of the items is pending.

The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that poachers kill 96 elephants every day for their ivory. Prior to the enactment of the New York State law, New York City was considered to be the epicenter of the illegal ivory trade in the U.S., worth upward of $23 billion annually, according to a United Nations study.

Results from the 2016 Great Elephant Census show there are only 352,000 African savanna elephants still in existence – a decline of 30 per cent in the last seven years.

Rogal and Villamarin were released on their own recognizance following their arraignments and ordered to return to court on August 29

“The arrest of these two individuals should send a strong message that illegally selling artifacts made from the ivory tusks of threatened elephants will not be tolerated in Queens County,” Brown said. “Buyers of such items should also be especially cautious and only buy from licensed retailers,” Brown explained. “Otherwise, they may be directly contributing to the extinction of one of the world’s most magnificent animals – the elephant.”

Anyone with information on suspected environmental crimes is urged to call DEC at 844-332-3267.

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