AR-News: (US) Bandits tap 'easy money' smuggling illegal wildlife
John W Kimbrell
jkimbrell at juno.com
Fri Sep 26 02:44:48 EDT 2003
Bandits tap 'easy money' smuggling illegal wildlife
The Greenville News
Posted Thursday, September 25, 2003 - 8:18 pm
By Jason Zacher
jzacher at greenvillenews.com
Related Web sites:
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- Southeast Region
Tips for travelers from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The World Conservation Union
The United Nation's Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
Lists of Endangered Species:
Wildlife and their black market value
ATLANTA Daryl Victor stands in the center of the international
terminal's baggage claim, examining the passengers on Delta flight 280
The flight usually doesn't have any contraband on it, but it's turtle
nesting season, and Victor is looking for eggs.
Victor, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspector, can spare just 15
minutes a day searching passengers for illegally imported animals and
animal products. He spends most of his day inspecting cargo.
Drawing on five years of experience, he waits for a sense that something
is amiss. He looks for someone acting nervous or shifty, but he never
No sea turtle eggs this day, at least not that he can sniff out. With
more people, he could do random searches, he says. But he is one of only
two wildlife inspectors at the Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport
trying to curb the lucrative illegal wildlife trade.
That's two agents for about 5.5 million international passengers and
2,200 commercial wildlife shipments that annually pass through Atlanta.
The illegal wildlife trade is fueled by America's tremendous demand for
wildlife products such as ivory carvings, tortoise shell guitars and
stools made of elephant feet, said Craig Hoover, deputy director of
TRAFFIC, a London-based group affiliated with the World Wildlife
Most buyers don't realize they might be contributing to the death of
animal species, experts say.
"For a substantial number of threatened species, the wildlife trade is
either the primary threat or a significant threat to their survival,"
The animals are imported live as pets or brought in as trinkets or
souvenirs. While not every animal product is illegal, many are, and
federal and international laws allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
to confiscate them.
While air travelers have noticed more security because of the terrorist
threat, the number of wildlife inspectors in the Southeast has stayed the
same for nearly 25 years. The Fish and Wildlife Service has asked
Congress for more money to hire inspectors, as part of the proposed U.S.
Department of Interior budget.
While the world focuses on narcotics and immigration, terrorists needing
money to operate may be switching to the lucrative and lightly policed
and prosecuted world of wildlife trading, said Mike Elkins, the agency's
assistant special agent in charge in Atlanta.
"It's easy money," he said. "We've heard rumors of terrorists operating
in Brazil who deal in narcotics and wildlife, but we don't have any solid
Elkins said a tourist who accidentally buys a prohibited item in another
country is unlikely to face prosecution; more likely, the contraband will
simply be seized. But the penalties for repeat offenders, genuine
smugglers or egregious offenders include hefty fines and jail time.
But not many are caught.
Chris Cutter, with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which also
tracks the endangered species trade, said efforts to curb it in the
United States are "under-funded and not taken very seriously."
A 167-country treaty regulates the commerce of animals and protects more
than 30,000 plant and animal species. Cutter said some governments signed
the treaty and now look the other way. Others follow the treaty to the
The United States, he said, "is somewhere in the middle."
Elkins said his officers do their best with the manpower they have.
"We really only have the officers to inspect declared shipments," he
said. "We do catch a few smuggled items, but five percent would be
generous. I doubt we catch that much."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is understaffed nationwide, according
to agents and experts. There are only 93 specially trained wildlife
inspectors in all the airports and seaports in the country.
"We have good wildlife trade laws in the U.S.," Hoover said, "but without
enough people to enforce them, the laws aren't worth the paper they're
An uphill battle
The southeastern office of the Fish and Wildlife Service has 15 wildlife
inspectors for 10 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Ten of the
inspectors are stationed in Miami, two in Atlanta and one each in San
Juan, Tampa, Fla. and New Orleans.
"We have no idea what comes and goes through Charleston," Elkins said.
It's not just Charleston. There are major seaports in Savannah;
Jacksonville, Fla.; Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; and Wilmington,
N.C. There also are international airports in Raleigh, Charlotte,
Orlando, Fla.; and Ft. Lauderdale that have no inspectors.
There aren't any wildlife inspectors at the Federal Express hub in
Memphis, nor at the United Parcel Service hub in Louisville, Ky.; nor the
DHL courier service hub in Cincinnati.
As they do in Atlanta, Fish and Wildlife officers have to rely on U.S.
Customs agents to call in suspicious items. Victor said nearly all of the
items he confiscates from passengers are noticed first by Customs agents
or other airport personnel.
Elkins said his agency is happy with the support from Customs, but
Customs agents have their own jobs to do, and they are not specially
trained to notice illegal wildlife items.
Customs agents in Atlanta did notice 14 cobras in a box declared as
silverware. Transportation Security Agency officers caught a South
African man who had two suitcases filled with wildlife items that passed
through customs and were only noticed when he was searched by security
while boarding a domestic flight.
Victor and his partner, Debbie Bossie, focus on known high-risk flights,
primary those to and from South Africa and flights originating in Russia
and going through Europe to Atlanta. African flights carry tourists with
wildlife trinkets; Russian flights may carry illegal caviar.
Stopping what's leaving
Inside the Fish and Wildlife Service's office under Atlanta's E Concourse
are dozens of confiscated items, including six-foot elephant tusks,
shahtoosh shawls, a caiman standing and holding an ashtray between its
front feet, real leopard-skin rugs, a sea turtle-shell guitar and a
stuffed baby green sea turtle.
Conservationists and people in law enforcement are equally concerned
about what is leaving the United States. Removing millions of animals or
plants, whether from Africa or America, has a serious impact on
biodiversity and harms sensitive ecosystems such as the Great Smoky
Mountains. Just last year, 6 million turtles were exported from Louisiana
alone en route to the Orient, where turtles are a delicacy.
Elkins said much of the agency's enforcement focuses on stopping cartels
in the United States that export items such as black bear gall bladders
and bald eagle feathers.
The United States has 1,263 endangered species and 256 on a list for
consideration. There are also 42 endangered species in South Carolina,
including the mountain sweet pitcher plant, which is one of several
varieties of prized carnivorous plants.
Bossie said people who take even small animals out of an area as pets
also are removing part of the food chain or the ecosystem as a whole.
"People think, 'but it's just a little mouse,' " she said. "But that
mouse is food for something and taking it means something else loses
Waiting for help
After Victor used up his 15 minutes with the Guatemala passengers at the
Atlanta airport, he and Bossie drove across the tarmac to the Delta Air
Cargo building to inspect a shipment of reptiles.
The two are a real team, dedicated to their jobs. Victor has given his
home phone number to Customs agents working on weekends in case they find
something. He and Bossie feel guilty when they miss a day of work.
"It's hard to take time off," Bossie said. "We can't get sick at the same
time, either. If I do, (Victor) is the only one to handle everything."
Neither Bossie nor Victor would speculate on what it would be like to
have more agents. They both smile and say it would make their lives
easier, but there would still be three, four or five agents trying to
inspect those 2,200 cargo shipments and 5.5 million passengers.
Elkins said everyone is more concerned with terrorists since the Sept. 11
attacks on New York and Washington. Getting attention for wildlife crimes
is difficult because people can't see a human victim.
"The problem with wildlife crime is there's nobody to call 911," Elkins
said. "How many agents do we need? I don't know. But we need more than we
Jason Zacher covers the environment and can be reached at 864-298-4272.
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