“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.
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.”