Illegal Entry: Endangered Animal Smuggling Is Big Business at U.S. Ports

Article excerpt

Mary was returning to Miami from a South American vacation when a U.S. Customs agent asked her to answer some routine questions regarding her declaration of a large sum of money. She was very nervous and repeatedly touched her hair, which was done up in a high bun. Suddenly, the hair began to twist and make noise. Agitated, she reached up and removed a baby marmoset that had been drugged and tucked into her hair for the plane ride. Lacking the necessary permits, Mary forfeited the marmoset, which was subsequently adopted by the Miami Zoo.

In their jobs as U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) inspectors, Eddie McKissick and Rose McCloud encounter incredible smuggling attempts, from amateurs like Mary, to seasoned pros who use "runner" networks and rake in millions. McCloud, who's been based in the San Francisco area for 11 years, says she seizes an average of two illegal items weekly.

Estimated at $2 to $3 billion a year, the professional trade in endangered wildlife and byproducts is thriving. According to Washington-based USFWS agent Bruce Weissgold, as much as 95 percent of the wildlife brought into the United States is cleared on paperwork alone because there aren't enough inspectors to oversee the volume that passes through the ports of entry.

Today, nearly a third of the world's wildlife is in danger of extinction, and a major cause, second only to habitat loss, is the illegal smuggling trade. Profit margins are high and the risk of getting caught is low - giving animal poachers plenty of room to move. Many of these animals being taken from the wild are now worth more dead than alive. And to collectors, often the more endangered a species is, the more valuable it is on the black market.

Live animals and illegal wildlife products get into the U.S. in a number of ways. Many items slip through in shipments destined for department and specialty stores. Live reptiles have been smuggled through the mail in Tupperware containers marked "Fragile Glass." A man caught by a Miami wildlife inspector with a live South American woolly monkey (street value, $10,000) in his inner coat pocket, denied the smuggling charge and said it must have "jumped" into his coat.

Miami is the port of entry for about 75 percent of all legal wildlife shipments into the United States, and consequently, most of the illegal shipments. Attracted by high profits and low risk - and under increasing public scrutiny - large numbers of drug traffickers are getting involved in the illegal wildlife trade. McKissick says some smugglers even combine the two trades by sewing their drugs into the stomachs of live animals.

"These people are nuts. They'll try anything," says McCloud. When McCloud confiscates goods that need a positive ID, she sends them to a 23,000 square-foot, $3. …