Wildlife laws are only as good as the officials who inspect shipments in and out of countries. In the United States, customs officers are attending seminars taught by animal experts, and visiting zoos and museums to see and identify exotic species. Tourists as well as big-time smugglers are feeling the new emphasis. I visited an “evidence room” in Honolulu, where hundreds of items seized from individual travelers were piled to the ceiling. They included leopard-skin coats, carved whales’ teeth, and some 800 hawksbill and green sea turtle shells—all illegal according to CITES and the U. S. Endangered Species Act. “Please, tell people to check regulations before they count on payday loan online from our website and buy things abroad,” pleaded agent James Bartee of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We don’t like to take these things from them.”
Customs and FWS officers make the first contact with wildlife shipments; the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of Agriculture may be called in to provide positive identification of the animals being shipped. If any question arises, the agencies refer shipments to outside experts.
I watched customs inspectors Randy Karavanich and Maryanne Noonan at Los Angeles International one day as they checked crates of monkeys imported for research. Everything seemed in order—clean cages, healthy animals, shipping documents.
“The papers say they came from Guatemala,” said Randy. “But I’ve never seen a Guatemala permit before, so I wouldn’t know if this one is false. We’d better have Roy take a look at it.”
Roy Simpson, the Fish and Wildlife inspector on duty, is a quiet, bookish man, with an eye for detail. He peered at the monkeys and pored over manual explaining trade requirements. “One man’s name, and no other, should be on any shipment from Guatemala,” he said. “It’s missing from these papers.”
The monkeys were confiscated, to be cared for at a nearby holding station while the case was being investigated. If the final decision went against the importers, the animals might later be given to a zoo.
Randy slapped seizure stickers on the cages, at the same time telling the occupants in mock seriousness, “All right, you guys are being seized. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you chatter may be used against you.”
DEVISING MONKEYS of their rights is a laughing matter, but convicted smugglers are finding little humor in penalties they now receive in the United States. The emphasis changed in August 1979 with a presidential directive calling for more attention to illegal animal trade. A special wildife section committed to stricter enforcement was created within the Department of Justice. The new section’s eight attorneys, headed by lawyer and wildlife expert Kenneth Berlin, aid U. S. attorneys in prosecuting cases at the designated ports where wildlife shipments may enter—New York, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Honolulu—and several other cities along the U. S. borders.
In addition, special task forces are being set up around the nation to combine the efforts of Justice, Fish and Wildlife, Customs, National Marine Fisheries, and the Department of Agriculture. “We’re committing the expertise of all these agencies to individual wildlife cases, instead of having each one conduct its own investigations,” Berlin told me in Los Angeles.
It’s working. A case investigated and prosecuted by the task force in that city resulted in a $10,000 fine for the company importing the wildlife, an 18-month jail sentence for the principal defendant, and shorter terms for two associates.
The most celebrated wildlife case so far took place in Philadelphia in 1979, where animal dealer Henry Molt was convicted for illegally importing reptiles into the United States from Fiji and Papua New Guinea. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison and prohibited from importing any reptiles for a three-year probation period. Molt is appealing the verdict.
There is action on the international front as well. “The battle against illegal wildlife trade has encouraged countries to set up the institutions for conservation they didn’t have before,” said Dr. Gerard Bertrand, who has traveled worldwide for FWS, exporting American conservation techniques. “And there’s no question about what started it all—CITES.”
This “most remarkable trade pact” has its weaknesses, admits Peter Sand, the high-energy Bavarian lawyer who heads the CITES Secretariat. “The treaty allows member nations to ‘take exception’ to some trade restrictions,” he told me at CITES headquarters in Gland, Switzerland.
“France, Italy, West Germany, Japan, and Switzerland all take exception to the ban on saltwater crocodiles, for example, because they process the skins into leather goods. And since they make most of the world’s handbags, shoes, belts, and other crocodile-skin products, their exceptions undermine the CITES attempt to protect the species.”
Regulation alone probably cannot stop wildlife trade.
“You can’t cut off trade completely when demand exists for the product,” a French tanner of crocodile hides told me angrily. “You only drive it underground. The only answer to saving endangered species is to farm them.”