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  National Geographic 26 Jul 07
Wildlife Smuggling Boom Plaguing L.A., Authorities Say
Stefan Lovgren for National Geographic News

From monkeys smuggled in underwear to tortoises shipped with Chinese toys, the illegal animal trade through Los Angeles is growing increasingly daring—and lucrative—officials say.

A partial list of smuggled wildlife seized by federal agents in Los Angeles in recent years reads like a who's who of the world's most exotic animals.

The loot includes hundreds of piranhas and stingrays from South America, Asian leopard kittens from Indonesia, thousands of threatened songbirds from West Africa, protected parrots from Mexico, Hawaiian chameleons, a jaguar pelt, even the head of an endangered Bengal tiger.

The creatures have been seized from backpacks, shipping crates, and smugglers' own clothes.

"You name it, we've seen it," said Joe Johns, chief of the environmental crimes section at the U.S. Attorney's office.

Johns prosecutes those who kill endangered species or smuggle the rare animals and plants into the L.A. region. These days, he is a busy man. "We're investigating as many cases as we ever have," said Johns, whose office has grown from one prosecutor to six in the past eight years.

The global trade in smuggled wildlife is booming, with worldwide sales estimated to be anywhere from U.S. $10 billion to U.S. $20 billion.

In the United States, the trade is the second largest black market after illegal drug traffic.

Much of the trafficking is centered on Los Angeles. "We're not only a gateway to Central America, but we're also right at the core of the trade with the Pacific Rim," said Marie Palladini, special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles. "Everything seems to come through here," she said.

Crime Rings

Hard numbers on how much illegal wildlife enters the U.S are hard to come by. Johns said he receives a case to prosecute about once every other week. That probably represents only a tiny fraction of the smuggling activity taking place in his southern California district, he said.

Smugglers range from collectors looking to own an exotic pet to sophisticated crime rings drawn by potentially huge profits.

"The mark-up in this business is incredible," said Palladini, the FWS agent. For example, she said, a hunter in Central America may get paid U.S. $50 for a rare parrot. After going through the hands of several middlemen, the parrot may fetch up to U.S. $1,000 on the black market in the United States.

Much of the illegal wildlife comes through Los Angeles International Airport, one of the nation's busiest.

In 2002, a 45-year-old Palm Springs man was arrested upon his return from Asia for smuggling two Asian leopard cats through the airport in his backpack. Things turned really strange when some birds of paradise flew out of the luggage of his travel companion. When federal agents body-searched the companion, they found two lesser slow lorises, also known as pygmy monkeys, stuffed into his underwear.

X-Ray Screening

Los Angeles is also the busiest seaport complex in the country. A large volume of smuggled wildlife is concealed in sea cargo containers of other products being brought into the country, Johns said.

"Smugglers realize the chances of their sea cargo container being inspected are minimal," he added.

Yet more smuggled wildlife is being intercepted, which Johns attributes partly to heightened scrutiny for national security reasons. "Just by peering into containers looking for dirty bombs, you start to find other types of criminal activity as well," he said.

In one case, inspectors from the Department of Homeland Security at the L.A. airport x-rayed a large shipment of handmade chairs from an African country known to be a transit point for narcotics. Inside they found the outlines of 8-feet-long (2.4-meter-long) elephant tusks. The find led federal agents to a warehouse in Hollywood that was stocked with illegal ivory being sold throughout the United States.

Increased screening of international mail is also yielding results. Two months ago a man was brought into custody in L.A. after several packages addressed to him—labeled as toys and sandals—were found to contain dozens of endangered tortoises.

In April, 57-year-old Hisayoshi Kojima from Japan was sentenced in an L.A. court to 21 months in prison for smuggling endangered butterflies into the U.S. Kojima's illicit cargo included two Queen Alexandra's birdwings, the largest butterfly in the world, which he had sold to an undercover agent for U.S. $8,500.

"I see a significant rise in wildlife coming in through the mail," FWS agent Palladini said. Much of it is sold on the Internet, she said.

Rare Delicacies

Roy Torres is a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service's Office of Law Enforcement in Pacific Grove, California.

He said he has seen a "tremendous increase" in the smuggling of marine animals. "There are a lot of countries whose fisheries are collapsing [and] that are implementing [stricter] fishing regulations," he said. "This has led to more animals being illegal to possess and import.

"When animals become more lucrative, it leads to increased smuggling," Torres said.

One fish species of particular concern is Patagonian toothfish, also known as Chilean sea bass, which has been overfished in the waters off Antarctica.

Federal agents recently intercepted an L.A.-bound shipment of 10,000 pounds (4,500 kilograms) of the endangered fish, popular on restaurant menus.

Officials say that L.A.'s ethnic diversity fuels the demand for endangered species as food. "There's a demand here that you don't see in, say, Kansas," Palladini, said.

Sea turtle eggs used for soup are smuggled in by the hundreds of thousands from Central America and served, often openly, in El Salvadoran restaurants in southern California, she said.

Agents have also intercepted thousands of jars of illegal caviar going to Little Odessa, a local Russian neighborhood, she said.

Hundreds of vials of bear bile, which some believe has medicinal value, were also seized on their way to L.A.'s Chinese markets.

Many pet owners, meanwhile, are just looking for something exotic or different, Palladini said. "Why would you go to all the trouble to get an [endangered] star tortoise when you can buy another tortoise at Petco?" she asked.

"Because it's unique, and others don't have it."

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