A New Jersey man was charged this week with buying a $6,800 tiger-skin rug in violation of federal wildlife conservation laws.
Authorities released few details about the case and declined to answer questions. They said only that Loren Varga, 60, of Franklin Park, Somerset County, purchased the pelt in Pennsylvania this month and agreed to plead guilty at a forthcoming court hearing in Philadelphia.
The Endangered Species Act makes buying, selling, importing, or exporting tiger fur or body parts a federal crime punishable by up to a year in prison and $50,000 in fines.
Varga did not return calls for comment Friday, and it was not clear whether he had retained an attorney.
On his Facebook page, he identifies himself as an employee in the radiology department at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., an avid world traveler and antique collector, and a descendant of Charlemagne.
The population of wild tigers has been decimated over the last century by poaching and habitat destruction. In 2015, conservationists estimated that the global wild tiger population had plummeted to less than 4,000 — down from around 100,000 at the start of the 20th century. The U.S. government and animal welfare groups estimate that more tigers are living in captivity in U.S. zoos and private menageries than remain in the wild.
Despite conservationists’ efforts to protect them, a thriving global black market for tiger parts persists.
In China, tiger bone wine — made from the creature’s crushed bones, left to macerate for years in rice liqueur — is a status symbol. Tiger pelts, often sold in the form of decorative rugs, sell for thousands of dollars on closely guarded private Facebook groups and online auction sites, according to a 2018 complaint filed by the National Whistleblower Center with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Federal prosecutions of people seeking to buy or sell tiger parts are uncommon, but last year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigators in Wichita, Kan., set up a sting operation that caught a man offering to pay $8,000 for two tiger pelts for his home office.
And in April, a federal jury found former Oklahoma gubernatorial candidate Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage guilty of causing the deaths of five tigers and offering to sell tiger cubs to fund a murder-for-hire plot against a Florida animal sanctuary founder who had criticized his treatment of animals.
Even one-time presidential candidates aren’t immune from scrutiny.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz immediately drew ire from animal rights advocates after posting a photo of himself and Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) posing next to a tiger-skin rug on Facebook in 2014 with the message: “Did a little shopping for the office … in Houston today.”