Inspectors catch wildlife smugglers but fear the sequester’s bite

Nothing surprises Edward Grace anymore.

Women pretending to be pregnant while smuggling monkeys under their blouses. Men wearing hidden vests with pockets full of endangered sea turtle eggs. Guys with baby Burmese pythons in burlap bags shoved down their pants.

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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.

Market demand

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.

The delegation recently lost a fight with Canada and Greenland over toughening laws for polar bears, but it won stronger protections for freshwater turtles and tortoises in Asia and the United States. Half of these turtles and tortoises face extinction because of legal and illegal trade for food and pets, as well as urban sprawl that destroys habitat.

Before he left for the summit, Ashe said that when nations push back against U.S. demands, he pulls out his trump card, citing the country’s tough wildlife laws and the enforcement outfit that backs them up.

“We catch a lot of bad guys,” he said.

As the delegation prepared to depart for Bangkok, the budget hammer dropped, causing a reality shift. “The hiring freeze will result in fewer investigations,” Grace said, “making it easier for wildlife-smuggling rings to operate in the U.S.”

Under convention rules, animals on the list of 4,000 pro­tected species worldwide cannot be transported, killed as hunting trophies or used as fashion items without a permit.

Permit approval can take three months. Anything other than the plant or animal specified on a permit is subject to seizure by enforcement agencies across the world.

But that threat hasn’t kept smugglers from trying. Some conservation groups say that’s because the convention’s bark is worse than its bite.

To its credit, the convention has “been successful in raising consciousness in Africa, Asia and Latin America . . . about the consequences in illegal wildlife trade,” Lee Talbot, a George Mason University professor, said in an interview with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But its success has been up and down, “a kind of roller coaster,” said Talbot, who attended the first meeting and is considered a founding father of the talks.

The convention banned the sale of ivory worldwide in 1989, helping to increase the African elephant and rhino populations. But later it allowed poor African countries to sell off stockpiled ivory confiscated from poachers and taken from animals that died of natural causes, making it easier for criminals to launder tusks.

Thailand has a legal ivory trade that gives cover to an illegal trade, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Rangers at African wildlife refuges are outgunned and lose thousands of elephants — 200 were shot in Cameroon in January 2012.

A 10-pound rhinoceros horn sells for about $100,000 and can be transformed into libation cups or a carved sculpture worth several times that amount.

Fish and Wildlife is conducting a large-scale investigation, Operation Crash, targeting traders of rhinoceros horns. The probe has led to the seizure of 37 horns and products made from them over the 11 / 2 years since its launch, according to Fish and Wildlife.

The operation, a multi-agency task force that includes federal, state and local police, also confiscated $1 million in cash from criminal organizations, along with gold ingots worth the same amount.

In the past year, seven people have been arrested, including Jin Zhao Feng, a Chinese citizen who allegedly oversaw the transfer of dozens of horns from the United States to China.

Exotic collection

At Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, inspector Catharine Cockey displayed goods she seized over a 25-year career — tiger skin taken from a hunter who shot the too-young animal, a handbag made from a ­­dwarf crocodile and a bottled potion called snake wine, with several dead snakes in a liquid reputed to ease arthritis pain.

She had laryngitis pills made from “rhino horn” and “bear gall,” and a scarf valued between $10,000 and $40,000 made from the hair of a Tibetan antelope, slaughtered so that every follicle could be pulled out.

Some confiscated items are kept at ports for show-and-tell at schools, but most are sent to a repository in Colorado — except when the animal is alive.

Paul Cerniglia, a supervising inspector at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, said he once discovered a crocodile sloshing about in a crate with a false bottom. The animal was taken to a zoo.

“You can compare it to the drug trade,” Grace said. “Instead of drugs it becomes wildlife.”

 
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