Four Mexican big-game hunters were fined a total of $80,000 today after they were caught at a local airstrip trying to export three polar bear hides and skulls and narwhal tusks without proper permits.
The four men pleaded guilty this morning and paid their fines in cash.
Defense lawyer Evan Roitenberg, who represented three of the men — a 67-year-old man and his two adult sons — described his clients as "gentlemen of means," who had simply made a mistake by trusting an outfitter who promised to provide all necessary permits.
The four men came to Canada March 15 from Monterey, Mexico aboard a private jet, after paying $35,000 each to participate in an Arctic big-game hunt.
The four were arrested in Winnipeg March 31 when their jet was refueling en route back to Monterey.
Environment Canada wildlife officers had been tipped that the men were removing polar bear hides without the proper export permits and were waiting for them at the airport.
Hector Martinez, Sr., 67, is a property developer in Monterey, Mexico, where he also owns 26 ranches. Court was told that he is an enthusiastic hunter who travels the world in search of big game.
The other three men charged were Martinez’s two sons, Hector Armando Martinez, 38, and Alejandro Martinez, 35 — also from Monterey and who work for their father’s property development firm — and Martinez’s godson, Gerardo Rodriguez, described as a small-business man in Monterey who is also a silent partner in a Vancouver restaurant.
Federal prosecutor Erin Magas told court that the polar bear hunt was legal. Local hunters in Nunavut are issued tags annually to allow them to hunt polar bears, which they can hunt themselves or sell the tags to big-game hunters who travel to the north from all over the world.
However, a separate export permit is needed to take polar bear hides out of the country, which Magas said involved an international convention designed to monitor the polar bear population and determine how many should be culled every year.
Rodriguez, the senior Martinez and his son Alejandro had gone to Resolute Bay, Nunavut, to hunt polar bears, while Hector Armando Martinez and two other Mexican men had gone to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut to hunt musk ox.
The three men each shot and killed a polar bear and had been provided a territorial export license to take the hides to Edmonton to a taxidermist. Court was told that they believed the taxidermy fees were too high and changed their plans to take the hides directly to Mexico, flying to Winnipeg where Hector Armando Martinez was waiting for them after he had finished hunting musk ox.
The Environment Canada wildlife officers, along with officers from the Canada Border Services Agency, searched the jet and found the polar bear hides and narwhal tusks. Without the proper export permits, all the items were seized.
Magas told the court that even with proper export permits, the Mexican government does not allow the importation of mammals or mammal hides into its country and the four men would not have been legally allowed to bring them into the country.
Magas said that Martinez Sr. had a 1994 conviction in the U.S. for trying to smuggle wild exotic animals into Mexico, including an African lion, three tigers, a bobcat, three black bears, two jaguars and a leopard. He pleaded guilty to that offence and was fined $10,000.
Roitenberg said the men relied on the outfitter who provided them with an export permit to take the hides to Edmonton, but they also believed that was sufficient to get the hides out of Canada. He said what they did was wrong but not intentional.
Roitenberg said the senior Martinez is an advocate of animal and wildlife protection, adding that among his 26 ranches in Mexico, some were dedicated as game preserves.
The four men paid their fine in cash and left the courthouse early this afternoon, heading to the airport where the private jet was waiting to take them back to Monterey.
The court was told that the $80,000 in fines would be directed to a federal program, the Environmental Defence Fund, which allocates money to environmental groups around the country.
The polar bear hides and narwhal tusks were forfeited.