Environment: The Wildlife Trade

As the smuggling of endangered species of animals and plants increases, protective laws remain easy to break and hard to enforce


LAST FALL, ON the morning of September 29, officials of the General Services Administration in Washington opened the first of some 28,000 sealed bids from a bizarre government auction. For several days earlier in the month, prospective bidders had found their way to an obscure federal building on Third Avenue in Brooklyn, where, in a carefully guarded room on the fifth floor, they were allowed to inspect the merchandise for sale. Scattered on tables were more than 40,000 pieces of elephant ivory, ranging in size from whole sixty-five-pound tusks to carved miniature golfclub pendants. Alongside the ivory were elephant-hide briefcases, elephant-hide beer mugs, elephant-hide shaving kits. There were antelope boots and cobra handbags, elephant-foot ice buckets and caiman checkbook covers. There were 1,325 pairs of python shoes.

All these objects had been confiscated over the past decade by U.S. Customs or Fish and Wildlife agents. When seized, all were being brought into the United States illegally, either in the luggage of uninformed tourists or, more often, through the maneuvers of sophisticated smugglers. Yet, prodigious as they may have seemed heaped together in one room, the 50,000 items in Brooklyn represented only a portion of the wildlife products seized. They did not include plants or live animals. They did not include the vast number of objects made from endangered species, marine mammals, and migratory birds—products that no one, not even the federal government, is allowed to sell.

In fact, the confiscated wildlife products auctioned in Brooklyn represent no more than a tiny fraction of the illegal trade. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) investigators, who did not begin actively tracking down major smugglers until the late 1970s, are only now beginning to discern the likely extent of that trade, and the more they discover, the more alarmed they become. Their estimates of the money that is changing hands are still little more than guesses, but $100 million a year is a common figure. Profits can range from 300 to 400 percent. Although wildlife officials have even less of an idea how many plants, animals, and wildlife products these profits represent, they believe the number of items could reach more than 25 million, a quarter of the legal total. One reason so little is known is that agents have trouble keeping up with even the legal trade; for example, of the 25,000 shipments of wildlife and wildlife products that come through New York every year, enforcement agents are lucky if they can inspect 20 percent.

If one thing is certain, though, it’s that the world has an apparently inexhaustible appetite for live wild animals and for the skin and meat of dead ones. The illegal trade tends to satisfy that appetite with the most endangered plants and animals. The consequences are often grave, especially in Third World countries, where most of the species live. Scientists say that the global network of poachers, middlemen, and importers supplying the trade has become the single most important factor nudging several species of plants and animals to the verge of extinction—among them some orchids, the olive ridley sea turtle, and the rhinoceros. Officials of TRAFFIC (Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce), an international trade-monitoring group funded by the World Wildlife Fund, estimate that among some of those threatened species, four or five animals are killed during taking or shipping for every one sold on the market.

The illegal trade sometimes presents problems for the United States as well. Two years ago, FWS agents seized 10,000 pounds of walrus ivory in one day, an amount representing about 750 animals. So many headless walruses were washing up on the Siberian coast near Alaska that the Soviet government filed a formal protest with the State Department. Tens of thousands of birds are smuggled into the Southwest from Mexico every year, some of them carrying Newcastle disease, which is lethal to poultry. One 1975 Agriculture Department study concluded that if this disease should ever become established in the United States, it could cost the federal government $250 million a year to combat it.

According to a TRAFFIC study of the legal wildlife trade, the United States is the largest consumer of practically every wild plant, animal, or animal product that can be bought on the open market. The FWS estimates that the value of the legal trade is about one billion dollars a year. But that figure is based on the declared value of goods entering or leaving the country; in a trade with such high profits, the actual amount involved could be much higher. Nor does that figure include the yearly importation of 165 million plants, a substantial number of which are collected from the wild. Whatever its value, the legal trade in many species is growing rapidly—which means that the level of illegal trade must be rising as well.

Customers vary from scientists and zookeepers to art collectors anti urban cowboys. The biomedical and pharmaceutical industries, which use monkeys for research, bought most of the 22,000 monkeys legally imported, with a declared value of about $1.6 million, in 1981. Aside from primates and zoo specimens, most wildlife and wildlife products are luxury items, whose allure is often their exotic appearance and high price. Rhino horn, valued in some cultures for its medicinal properties and obtainable only on the illegal market, is said to be worth its weight in gold. For whatever reasons, Americans imported 700,000 live birds in 1981, with a declared value of $11.7 million. Almost $9 million worth of elephant ivory came in legally that year, as did $13 million worth of marine shells and shell products, and $3.6 million worth of coral articles.

The oldest, largest, and most profitable slice of the legal trade is the one in animal skins. The United States imported $200 million worth of raw and dressed furs in 1981, some of which came from wild animals. The United States exports several hundred million dollars’ worth of furs every year. Aside from the live-bird business, however, wildlife agents these days are most concerned about the sudden rise in the reptile-skin and -product trade. Almost $61 million worth of reptile products were imported legally in 1981, the last year for which detailed figures are available. This represents an increase of 250 percent over 1980 imports; wildlife officials fear that the value of the illegal reptile trade may be growing just as quickly. As Kenneth Berlin, founder and until a year and a half ago leader of the Justice Department’s Wildlife Section, observes, “One thing you learn by looking at the wildlife trade is that in America you can sell anything.”

THE WORLD BECAME aware of the dangers of the wildlife trade in the early 1970s, when many environmentalists were struck by the revelation that the wildlife of the world was dying off at an unimaginably fast pace. They cited estimates that half the species of warmblooded animals that had become extinct over the previous 2,000 years had done so during the first sixty years of this century. One of every ten species of plant and animal was threatened with extinction, mostly because the wild places of the world were being cleared and developed at an uncontrolled rate. The rain forests were most severely affected; even if some animals there, such as the great spotted cats, could survive a loss of habitat, they would not be able to survive the depredations of trade much longer.

This was the message that Russell Train, then the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, brought to the representatives of some eighty governments who gathered in Washington during the winter of 1973 to consider a treaty to regulate the wildlife trade. Ten years later, CITES, as the treaty is called (for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), is still used as a guide for keeping track of the commercial use of the countries’ native wildlife. CITES, which has been ratified by seventy-seven nations, brings together for the first time the countries that export wildlife, mostly in the Third World, with those that import it, mostly in Europe, along with Japan and the United States. It specifies which wild plants and animals are so close to extinction that they must not be traded, and which must be closely regulated to prevent them from also becoming endangered. “CITES is not a treaty to prohibit trade,” explains Richard Parsons, who, as the chief of the FWS Federal Wildlife Permit Office, has been a leader in refining and administering the treaty since U.S. ratification. “It’s not a treaty to be conducive to trade. It’s a treaty to regulate trade.” Regulation occurs when the country of origin issues an approved export permit, which is then checked by the importing nation. The beauty of CITES is that the tangled wildlife laws of seventyseven different countries are reduced to a single certification. “You just need that piece of paper,” Parsons says.

Of course, a treaty is only as good as the enforcement practices of its member nations, and these vary from good to nonexistent. With so much money to be made, bribery and corruption are inevitable. The treaty is frequently ignored, or permits are forged or signed by the wrong person. Sometimes export permits are given for species in countries where they’ve never been found. Ratifying CITES does not guarantee enforcement; in some countries, agents in the field have no idea what a CITES permit looks like. Too often, commercial pressures win out over conservation interests; Japan, France, and Italy, for example, have “taken reservations” on some of the species that they trade heavily, declaring, in effect, that as far as those animals are concerned, they are not members of C1TES. In countries with unpatrolled borders and thriving smuggling routes, there are more clandestine ways of evading regulation: for years, Brazil has banned exports of most of its wildlife, yet a good deal of it has been exported through Paraguay and Bolivia.

The wildlife trade, both legal and illegal, is nothing if not resilient. Soon after a country bans trade in a species, a neighboring country is likely to notice business in it increasing. Often, trade simply shifts to a similar species, a problem that has been particularly acute with reptiles. But a more serious problem, in the view of many enforcement officials, including Clark Bavin, the chief of the FWS Division of Law Enforcement, is that the permit system tends “to legitimize all shipments.” The fear is that the treaty has prompted illegal traders to think up more subtle deceits, that smugglers have reached the status of whitecollar criminals, cranking out forged or laundered permits that allow them openly to declare their illegal goods.

Most illegal plants, animals, and products enter the country right alongside legal wildlife, and a close look at legal imports reveals the difficulty wildlife inspectors face in sorting out the illegal ones. For instance, the United States imported 250,000 skins in products of various species of alligators and crocodiles in 1981. A TRAFFIC study showed that 90 percent of these items were the skins and products of the spectacled caiman, a South American crocodile divided into four subspecies, two of which are protected by the Endangered Species Act and cannot be imported. In 1981. a third of the skins and products identified as Caiman crocodilus crocodilus, one of the legal subspecies, arrived in the United States with their points of origin listed as any of eleven countries where C. c. crocodilus does not exist. One of the endangered subspecies, C, c. yacare, does exist in some of those countries.

Imagine a wildlife inspector for the Port of New York, then, faced with one of the 1,100 yearly shipments of spectacled-caiman skins and products. He must find the time to examine the spectacledcaiman shipment thoroughly. He must be able to tell the difference between an American-alligator handbag and a spectacled-caiman handbag. He must know the range of the spectacled caiman and verify that the animal exists in the country whose name appears on the export documents in his hand. He must know the wildlife laws of that country well enough to tell whether or not they allow the export of spectacled caiman. He must be familiar enough with the Endangered Species Act to know that two subspecies of spectacled caiman cannot be imported. Finally, he must be able to tell a handbag made of one subspecies of spectacled caiman from a handbag made from another subspecies of spectacled caiman. Smugglers figure the odds are in their favor.

ALTHOUGH THE UNITED States regulates its wildlife trade as well as any other country, enforcement efforts here have not been without controversy. Before 1970, almost nothing was known about the illegal trade. Seizures were generally made by customs agents who happened to have a personal affection for animals. The first clear idea of the complexity and sweep of illegal wildlife activity formed in 1975, when customs agents in Philadelphia stumbled onto a reptile-smuggling operation that they were eventually able to trace to the villages where the smuggled animals had been taken from the wild. Five years later, after two agents and an assistant U.S. attorney had collected evidence in Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Switzerland, and a few other countries, twentythree people had been indicted, and officials from nine zoos implicated.

President Carter helped focus attention on illegal trade in 1979, when he urged that special attention be given to fighting it. In October of that year, Kenneth Berlin set up the Wildlife Section in the Justice Department; then he formed the Wildlife Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee, so that representatives from five major federal agencies could conduct joint investigations. Agents began working under cover. A task force in the Southwest developed informants in the vast and lucrative illegal bird trade, where investigators discovered that, pound for pound, profits were as high for smuggling birds across the Mexican border as they were for smuggling drugs, while the chances of getting caught and jailed were far lower. Anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 tropical birds were crossing the border every year to be sold as pets, floated across the Rio Grande on inner tubes or hidden in the engine compartments of trucks, their beaks taped, the weaker birds already dead of asphyxiation.

FWS agents set up an animal dealership in a suburb of Atlanta, and within a year and a half this “snakescam” operation had bought 10,000 illegal wild animals, including forty-eight species of protected reptiles and three endangered species; the result was twenty-five arrests in fourteen states. By now, Berlin and his colleagues on the law-enforcement committee had evolved a strategy of going after the biggest dealers they could find. “The biggest dealer will do more business than a hundred small dealers,” he says. “When you do a big case, you learn everything that’s going on in the industry.” A year and a half after forming the Wildlife Section and keeping it under Berlin’s supervision, the Justice Department had initiated forty-five wildlife prosecutions, which had resulted in thirty-one jail sentences of up to five years, $110,000 in fines, and 120 years of probation.

Yet most of those cases had been filed under customs regulations and not under the appropriate conservation law. The Lacey Act, first passed in 1900, protects illegally taken wildlife from interstate or international transportation; for this reason, it should be the law most often used to prosecute wildlife smugglers. But of the forty-five Justice Department cases brought between October of 1979 and April of 1981, only twelve involved the Lacey Act, and only six of those concerned imports. There were two reasons for this. For one thing, the civil penalties allowed under the act were far too small to deter smugglers from going right back into business. And once in court with a criminal case, prosecutors did not simply have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the law had been broken—enough for a felony conviction in most non-wildlife cases. They had to demonstrate that the defendant knew he was breaking both the law of the exporting country and U.S. federal law by importing the wildlife here. Considering the time and expense of detecting and investigating illegal-trade cases, wildlife agents—until 1975, at least—saw little reason to waste their energy. All that work would bring a fine considerably lower than the price of a single hyacinth macaw.

Congress amended the Lacey Act in late 1981. raising the penalties and easing the burden of proof. (Now a prosecutor must prove only that the smuggler knew he was breaking the law of the exporting nation; some wildlife attorneys, however, say that even this is unusually difficult to establish in court.) By strengthening the act and by ratifying CITES, the government had managed in just a few years to set in place some serious obstacles to illegal trade. But more than a year after their passage, the Lacey Act amendments remain little used. The Wildlife Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee no longer meets as often as it did a year ago. The FWS has lost some thirty enforcement agents to budget cuts and will soon lose fifteen more. Enforcement officials in Customs say that presidential priorities have shifted again, and the agency is no longer actively investigating wildlife cases. Berlin’s successors in the Justice Department insist that major international wildlife cases are being investigated, but they add that under the Reagan Administration, their attorneys seem to be spending more time than ever defending the government in environmental litigation and less time prosecuting. Berlin himself has become concerned that the enforcement tools he helped create are no longer being used. He says that his old friends in the field are complaining that large quantities of wildlife contraband are getting through again.

EQUALLY OMINOUS TO some environmentalists is U.S. support in recent years for reducing CITES protection of certain animal species around the world. “The United States helped to sell this treaty to the world,” says Ginger Merchant, an endangered-species specialist for Defenders of Wildlife, which sued the Interior Department a few years ago over CITES implementation. “But what you see in recent meetings is the United States presenting some proposals that have gone down to defeat, because the perception of the rest of the world has been that they run against the best interests of wildlife.” Merchant points out that during the last CITES meeting, in New Delhi in 1981, the United States was one of very few nations to oppose increasing the controls on trade in certain species of whales and almost all species of parrots. Among the proposals the American delegation will take with it to the next CITES meeting, to be held in Botswana in April, are ones to reduce protection of the river otter, lynx, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bear.

Richard Parsons, one of the Interior Department officials most responsible for implementing CITES, argues that these proposals are needed because the original treaty protected too many species from too many unsubstantiated threats. Swayed by the environmental zeal so pervasive at the time, member countries often rushed to safeguard their wildlife without knowing whether it was in fact threatened by trade. The result was a long “wish list,” difficult to enforce.

“There is a strong feeling that a lot of species get listed only for emotional reasons,” Parsons says. “There’s no legal requirement that anyone has to do anything other than propose a listing. But by adding a lot of species, you just increase the volume of paper. I don’t want this treaty to be a paper tiger in ten or fifteen years.” Parsons believes that the information that has emerged over the past decade because of CITES indicates that some of the listed animals are abundant enough not to be damaged by international trade. Reducing the number of listed animals and plants, Parsons argues, will simplify and refine the treaty, thereby making it more effective in protecting those species that need it most critically.

Meanwhile, tugging at Parsons and his colleagues from the other side are a few trade groups and hunting groups, as well as most state fish-and-game departments, who fear that the treaty will cramp the traditional right of each state to manage its own wildlife. That fear became outrage when one of the first CITES actions taken by the federal government was to propose a ban on the export of bobcat skins on the grounds that the states were unable to prove that export would not irreparably harm the species. In response to the anger of the states, the Endangered Species Scientific Authority (ESSA), the semi-independent scientific panel that had recommended the ban, relented. Defenders of Wildlife sued, and relations between environmentalists and the federal government, which had been close throughout the drafting and early implementation of the treaty, deteriorated. Because of this and similar controversies, ESSA was eventually replaced, and its powers were assumed by the Interior Department, which now writes all CITES proposals.

Since then, Michael Bean, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund and a leader for the coalition of conservation groups at the 1979 and 1981 CITES meetings, has seen the government become more cautious about CITES, trying to “shorten the leash” on its delegation. He points out that the official U.S, delegation going to Botswana will be the smallest yet, and will include no one from the environmental community. “We’re being politely listened to,” Bean says, “but we’re being just as politely ignored.”

The internal debate over CITES reflects in part the position of the United States as one of the few countries in the world that is both a major importer and a major exporter of wild plants and animals. Although both importing and exporting countries profit from the wildlife trade, it is exporting countries that finally pay the greatest biological cost; as a result, importing countries that profit from wildlife taken someplace far away often clash at CITES meetings with exporting countries trying to protect their biological diversity. In Botswana next month, the representatives of seventyseven nations will try to protect both wildlife and trade.

“The question is,” says Kenneth Berlin, “will it work.” Despite the existence of CITES, there are stories of entire hillsides of cacti uprooted in an afternoon’s work, of rhinos machine-gunned for their horns, of gorillas beheaded for souvenirs. As long as there are customers willing to pay any price for elephant-foot ice buckets and hyacinth macaws, there will be dealers to supply them, no questions asked.

—Norman Boucher