Grace is a top law enforcement officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has watched travelers hop on and off international flights for decades, and over the years he has seen some pretty wild stuff.
“Every hour, every day, there’s a wildlife product being smuggled into the United States,” Grace said.
And slowing the flow of illegal trade is about to get much harder for what Grace calls America’s “thin green line” against petty pet smugglers and criminal cartels seeking to get rich using protected animals such as African elephants and rhinoceroses, both at risk of extinction.
Facing a financial hit from the recent budget-cutting sequester, the Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement recently canceled plans to train 24 new agents who investigate criminal activity, Grace said.
Fourteen vacancies for wildlife inspectors who eyeball people and shipping containers at major ports of entry also will not be filled. Nor will three positions at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, the world’s only forensic outfit to investigate wildlife crimes. Overtime and weekend inspections of shipments will be scrapped.
The unit is already stretched, Grace said, with only as many agents — 218 — as there were in 1978, three years after the unit was established to bolster the Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, Grace said, animal poaching has become more deadly, the list of protected species keeps growing and the number of international travelers has skyrocketed, overwhelming wildlife inspectors.
Americans buy a lot of legal wildlife products: furs, shoes, boots and belts for fashion; exotic fish, birds and reptiles as pets; protected woods for various musical instruments; and tons of food in restaurants. Last year, U.S. wildlife inspectors cleared more than 186,000 legal shipments of wildlife products valued at $4 billion.
The ugly flip side is that the United States is also a top destination for products funneled through a bustling illegal trade that threatens thousands of species of marine and terrestrial plants and animals.
“We can’t quantify how much is getting by us,” Grace said. “But do we know stuff is getting by us? Yes.”
Some couriers are tourists who buy trinkets abroad without realizing they are breaking a law. The worst offenders are couriers for the cartels.
They work to pass off huge shipments of caviar from protected sturgeon as legal by using false labels, and sneak horns and tusks hacked off African rhinoceroses and elephants in the same way drug dealers move their supplies — using hidden luggage compartments, shipping crates and hollowed-out spaces in cars driven across borders.
As enforcement is diminished, a U.S. delegation led by Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe is at the 16th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Wild Fauna and Flora in Bangkok, trying to compel about 175 other member nations to strengthen protections for certain species.