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Sat April 5, 2014

Lucrative Illegal Animal Trade Thrives In Southern California

Originally published on Wed April 30, 2014 12:21 pm

Exotic animal trafficking is big business, and Southern California is a hub.

In March, Cheng Zhuo Liu of Chula Vista, Calif., pleaded guilty to smuggling frozen sea cucumbers over the Mexico border. The 100 pounds of sea cucumbers, worth up to $10,000, were found in the spare tire compartment of Liu's Hyundai.

Fish and Wildlife Service agent Erin Dean says there are many ways to traffic wildlife in Southern California. She says smuggling avenues include LAX, the sixth-busiest airport in the world; the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest port in the nation; and the Mexican border.

"Currently we have 207 special agents and 126 wildlife inspectors around the country. So we're a very small law enforcement agency with a big job," she says.

It's a job that requires help from U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the ports of entry.

Michael Ferguson is on the front lines, inspecting plants, food and animals that come through LAX. He says he's seen just about everything.

For instance, in 2009, they detained a passenger flying in from Vietnam.

"Everything looked OK," Ferguson says. "But then, when they sat there and looked at his shoes, there were bird droppings on the top of his shoes."

When they pulled up the legs of his pants, they discovered 14 songbirds. The birds had been taped to his legs the entire flight.

"If it walks, crawls, swims, flies — somebody eats it, collects it, wears it or wants to," says Joseph Johns, a federal prosecutor of environmental crimes.

He says the black market for exotic animals is a multibillion-dollar industry. The market for illegal wildlife falls right behind drug and weapons smuggling, he says, in the U.S. and globally.

"You know, one of the more interesting cases we had in the office recently involves a TV personality by the name of Donald Schultz," Johns says.

Schultz, the former host of Wild Recon on Animal Planet, was found guilty of selling two endangered desert monitor lizards to an undercover agent for $2,500.

Ian Recchio, curator at the Los Angeles Zoo, identified them. When these sorts of animals turn up, Recchio is the guy they call.

"You don't know what's maybe broken loose. You never know what you're going to get," he says.

A couple years ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service intercepted a stuffed animal with something inside: paper bindles filled with scorpions. Recchio says the scorpions were arranged "very neatly, with their legs compressed and their tail compressed."

He carefully unpacked them with a scorpion expert from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The scientist told Recchio there was a scale of scorpion toxicity that ranged from 1 to 4. This type of scorpion, he said, was a 5. They were some of the most deadly scorpions in the world, shipped from Egypt through regular mail.

Back at LAX, Michael Ferguson says over the past few years he's seen fewer live animals and more animal parts coming through the X-ray. "Elephant skin, elephant toenails," he says. One man had a giant tusk in a box of furniture.

Ferguson says it all comes down to keeping up with the latest smuggling tactics — like two years ago in Delhi's airport in India when three smugglers hid tiny lorises in their underwear.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

Trafficking in exotic animals is big business. And it turns out Southern California is a hub. A man recently was caught trying to smuggle frozen sea cucumbers from Mexico. These are actually animals. They look like giant slugs. He had stuffed 100 pounds of these things into the spare tire compartment of his car, 100 pounds worth up to $10,000.

NPR's Danny Hajek reports on the very lucrative animal smuggling industry.

DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: When it comes to exotic animals, there is a huge demand. Inside Reptile Finders, a pet shop along the Pacific Coast Highway just outside L.A., you'll find terrariums filled with...

CHUCK DUNDOV: Chameleons, tarantulas, frogs, pythons, boas..

HAJEK: Twenty-seven-year-old Chuck Dundov manages this place. And when it comes to exotic animals, he plays by the rules.

DUNDOV: I have to - I mean, this is my business. We always keep it 100% legit here.

HAJEK: But he does hear talk of people looking to buy smuggled animals.

DUNDOV: All the time. You can't own a cobra. You can't own a Komodo dragon. It's completely illegal.

HAJEK: And that, he says, is the allure.

DUNDOV: If it's illegal, you want it even more. But at least I'm not the one that's providing it or having any part in the illegal reptile trade.

ERIN DEAN: Southern California provides a lot of avenues to get wildlife in and out of the country.

HAJEK: Erin Dean with the Fish and Wildlife Service tracks illegal animal trade. She points to LAX, the sixth busiest airport in the world, the Port of L.A., the busiest port in the nation, and then there's the Mexico border.

DEAN: Currently, we have 207 special agents and 126 wildlife inspectors around the country. So we are a very small law enforcement agency with a big job.

HAJEK: A job that requires help from U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the ports of entry.

MICHAEL FERGUSON: Thank you.

HAJEK: Michael Ferguson is on the front lines. He's in charge of inspecting plants, food and animals that come through LAX, and he's seen just about everything, like in 2009 when they detained a passenger flying in from Vietnam.

FERGUSON: The officer that was interviewing him looked at him, everything looked fine, just to look at him. But then when they sat there and looked at his shoes, there were bird droppings on the top of his shoes.

HAJEK: When they pulled up the legs of his pants, they discovered 14 songbirds.

FERGUSON: He took the entire flight with these birds taped to his legs.

JOSEPH JOHNS: If it walks, crawls, swims, flies - somebody eats it, collects it, wears it or wants to.

HAJEK: Joseph Johns is a federal prosecutor of environmental crimes. He says the black market for exotic animals is a multibillion-dollar industry.

JOHNS: We're talking narcotics smuggling and the black market for weapons. And right behind that is the market for illegal wildlife here in the U.S. and globally.

HAJEK: He pages through a stack of case files on his desk.

JOHNS: You know, one of the more interesting cases that we've had in the office recently involves a TV personality by the name of Donald Schultz.

HAJEK: The former host of "Wild Recon" on Animal Planet. When he was a guest on the cable talk show "Chelsea Lately" three years ago, Schultz handed host Chelsea Handler a small, fennec fox, native to North Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "CHELSEA LATELY")

CHELSEA HANDLER: Can you have them as a pet?

DONALD SCHULTZ: Absolutely not, no.

HANDLER: Why?

SCHULTZ: Because there's certain laws that prohibit the keeping of certain animals. Like, these guys actually make...

HAJEK: But Schultz himself was found guilty selling two endangered desert monitor lizards to an undercover agent for $2,600. Ian Recchio, curator at the L.A. Zoo, identified them. When these sorts of animals turn up, Recchio is the guy they call.

IAN RECCHIO: You don't know what's maybe broken loose. You never know you're going to get.

HAJEK: He says a couple of years ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service intercepted a stuffed animal with something inside: paper bindles filled with scorpions.

RECCHIO: Very neatly with their legs kind of compressed and their tail compressed.

HAJEK: He carefully unpacked them with a scorpion expert from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

RECCHIO: And he said, wow, you know? I said, well, what is that? And he said, well, we rate scorpion toxicity as far as their sting and their danger from a scale of one to four. And I said, well, what was that one? He said, well, that was a five. And so I said, wow. And he goes, yeah, that was one of the most deadly scorpions in the world, he told me.

HAJEK: That package was shipped from Egypt through regular mail. Each instance of smuggling is as bizarre and unique as the next. Back at LAX, Michael Ferguson says over the past few years, he's seen fewer live animals and more animal parts coming through the X-ray.

FERGUSON: Elephant skin, elephant toe nails. Yeah, I mean, it's crazy some of the stuff, but it's all those different parts. That one gentleman that came in that had this giant tusk inside of his box of furniture.

HAJEK: He says it all comes down to keeping up with the latest smuggling trends, like two years ago in Delhi's airport in India when three smugglers hid tiny loris monkeys in their underwear. Daniel Hajek, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.