Inspectors Stake Out Smuggled Animals
Tuesday, November 28, 2006; 1:48 PM
ATLANTA -- Wildlife inspector Bryan Landry can spot threats everywhere at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. A backpack carried off a flight from Nigeria contains plastic bags of meat from the bush that could harbor the lethal Ebola virus. Those salted duck eggs from South Korea, a delicacy not easily found here, could carry the dreaded bird flu. And the exotic birds taped to a passenger's legs and the pair of monkey paws concealed in a bag could harbor any one of several diseases that jump to humans. Landry and fellow inspectors with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service are a last line of defense against such risky items before they come across the border, often with unsuspecting people intending only to bring back a taste from home, an exotic pet or a travel memento.
"The issues surrounding disease are quickly becoming a daily event," Landry said.
Potential carriers are multiplying. Some 210 million wild animals were brought legally into the country last year, and many more were smuggled. The net of protection is thin.
There are just 120 inspectors like Landry to cover 39 airports and border crossings full time. Though Customs and Border Protection inspectors help monitor some smuggling, the wildlife inspectors are left to check passenger baggage, shipments of hunting trophies, cargo containers destined for the pet trade and suspicious boxes.
"It's tough to cover all the things we have to do on a daily basis with so few inspectors. Now throw in disease-fighting duties and it's really tough," Landry said.
THREATS FROM EXOTIC FOODS
When Landry is not in a cargo hold, he is on the airport passenger floor scanning weary international travelers as they pour off flights from North Korea, Paris and Nigeria to collect their luggage.
"We don't profile people," Landry said. "We profile bags."
After most international flights, mainly from Asia and Africa, containers overflow with seized products including raw chicken, salted duck eggs and pungent meat.
"They want a taste of home," Landry explained, "so they bring these products in."
A passenger from Nigeria carried two plastic bags filled with bushmeat and blackened fish in his backpack _ a present for his wife and daughter. They missed the flavors of their native country, he explained.