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Myrtle Beach Safari owner pleads guilty to federal wildlife trafficking and money laundering charges

Updated: Nov 10, 2023


Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, 63, of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, pleaded guilty today to a conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and a conspiracy to launder money.


Antle is the owner and operator of The Institute for Greatly Endangered and Rare Species (T.I.G.E.R.S.), also known as the Myrtle Beach Safari. The Myrtle Beach Safari is a 50-acre wildlife tropical preserve that offers tours and private encounters with exotic wildlife. Antle is also the Director of the Rare Species Fund, a nonprofit organization registered in South Carolina.


The Lacey Act prohibits trafficking of illegally taken wildlife, fish or plants, including animals protected under the Endangered Species Act. Antle conspired to violate the Lacey Act between September 2018 and May 2020 by directing the sale or purchase of two cheetah cubs, two lion cubs, two tigers and one juvenile chimpanzee – all of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Antle used bulk cash payments to hide the transactions and falsified paperwork to show non-commercial transfers entirely within one state. Antle also requested that payments for endangered species be made to his nonprofit so they could appear as “donations.”


The investigation also uncovered evidence of money laundering between February and April 2022, when Antle and a coconspirator conducted financial transactions with cash they believed was obtained from transporting and harboring illegal aliens. To conceal and disguise the nature of the illegal cash, Antle and his coconspirator would take the cash they received and deposit it into bank accounts they controlled. They would then write a check to the individual that had provided the cash after taking a 15% fee per transaction.


“The defendant held himself out as a conservationist, yet repeatedly violated laws protecting endangered animals and then tried to cover up those violations,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD). “This prosecution demonstrates our commitment to combatting illegal trafficking, which threatens the survival of endangered animals.”


“The defendant’s guilty plea is a testament to the dedication and perseverance of the FBI and our law enforcement partners in combating illegal financial activities,” said Special Agent in Charge Steve Jensen of the FBI Columbia Field Office. “The FBI remains committed to upholding the integrity of our financial systems and ensuring justice is served.”


“Wildlife crime is often connected with other criminal activity, including money-laundering," said Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement. “This investigation revealed a pattern of illicit wildlife transactions orchestrated by the defendant under the guise of donations and false paperwork. The Service and our partners will continue to hold accountable those involved in wildlife trafficking and other related crimes to ensure the future of all federally protected species. The Service will continue to bring to justice individuals who profit from the illegal trafficking of big cats and endangered species.”


“This plea is the product of exemplary collaboration between our law enforcement partners,” said U.S. Attorney Adair F. Boroughs for the District of South Carolina. “I commend our team for their work on this case who worked countless hours to unravel Antle’s sophisticated web of financial crimes and interstate wildlife trafficking. Our office remains committed to protecting endangered animals from those who would exploit them for profit.”


For each count, Antle faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and three years of supervised release. U.S. District Judge Joseph Dawson III for the District of South Carolina accepted Antle’s guilty plea. He will sentence Antle after receiving and reviewing a sentencing report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office.


The FBI and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are investigating the case. Senior Trial Attorney Patrick M. Duggan of ENRD’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Bower for the District of South Carolina are prosecuting the case.

 

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