Where the wild things are (here)

Brad Fitzpatrick"We've got skinks. A lot of different skinks," notes Mike Osborn, an inspector with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Los Angeles. It is a small shipment: about 1,000 gecko-like lizards from Egypt, packed in what appears to be squirmy pillowcases thumb-tacked to the sides of thin wooden crates. Osborn methodically opens the sacks to check whether they indeed hold skinks as it says on the manifest. They do: 25, 50, 75 per bag.Far from the familiar bustle of LAX's passeng

Sep 13, 2004
Janet Ginsburg
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Brad Fitzpatrick

"We've got skinks. A lot of different skinks," notes Mike Osborn, an inspector with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Los Angeles. It is a small shipment: about 1,000 gecko-like lizards from Egypt, packed in what appears to be squirmy pillowcases thumb-tacked to the sides of thin wooden crates. Osborn methodically opens the sacks to check whether they indeed hold skinks as it says on the manifest. They do: 25, 50, 75 per bag.

Far from the familiar bustle of LAX's passenger terminals, in a sprawling complex of air cargo warehouses, Osborn is one of 11 USFWS inspectors who meet and greet millions of wildlife travelers who arrive in southern California each week. Every now and again, one tries to make a break for it, like the legendary baby monitor lizard that skittered off in the direction of the nearby Sheraton Hotel one day. It made itself at home in a field next to a runway where it eventually grew into a four-foot monster. Presumably, its travel-mates grew up to be four-foot monster pets.

The explosion in the exotic pet trade over the last 10 years has Osborn's team routinely putting in 60-hour work weeks and carrying pagers 24 hours a day. Every week, an average of 250 animal shipments, which can each contain anywhere from 30 to more than 350 boxes, come by sea or air into Los Angeles. "We see millions of fish and thousands of reptiles. Sometimes I stop and think, 'How long can this last? How long can the world's wildlife withstand this volume?"' says Osborn. The situation is the same at the nation's other major ports, especially those in warmer climates, such as Houston and Miami.

But the animals keep coming, packed in crates, cardboard boxes, Styrofoam, burlap and plastic bags, and newspaper. Actually, newspaper is often the first clue that something's been smuggled. In places such as Africa, where national borders can be rather porous, wildlife species that are protected in one country are often trucked into another that allows their legal export to the United States. If animals arrive wrapped in newspapers from a country other than the one they were shipped from, that raises flags. Yet with so much money to be made and an inspection force stretched thin, shippers take chances.

The illegal exotics trade is so lucrative, many now rank it second only to drug-running, with profits measured in the tens of billions of dollars annually. The money in the legal trade is impressive as well, with markups commonly five, 10, or even more than 20 times wholesale costs.

Large losses are built into the business equation. In the tropical fish trade, losses can be as high as 30%, due to everything from leaky plastic bags, to boxes that get too hot or cold in transit. Life is cheap at wholesale. It is a volume game.

The animals don't come in alone, either: They can carry parasites and pathogens, as can the water they are packed in. "A few years ago when there was a problem with cholera in South America, I said, 'You know we get shipments of South American freshwater fish and there's water in all those bags.' But there was nobody to do the testing even if they wanted to," says Osborn.

The mission of the USFWS inspectors isn't animal health; it's to protect the protected species. They take on a second job when the rules are broken and they have to find homes for thousands of confiscated creatures. Sometimes things work out. The coral reef exhibits in most major US aquaria include exotic corals seized for CITES violations. (CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.) But what does one do with 5,000 iguanas without proper permits, or 100 baby boa constrictors? Or a bag full of baby snakeheads someone slipped into a tropical fish shipment? The calls go out to zoos, grade schools, 4-H Clubs, nature centers, and universities, but supply nearly always trumps demand.

Yet the pet trade is only part of the equation. The trade in wildlife as food may be even bigger. This includes "bushmeat": delicacies such as chimp or elephant, sliced and diced, packed raw or roasted, and smuggled by and for immigrants with a taste for home-style cooking. "When Vietnam opened up, we started seeing animals and animal parts we hadn't seen in years," says Osborn. "Forest antelope. Pangolins. We started opening suitcases and seeing these black things that were obviously cooked. We saw little fingers; it turned out to be slow loruses. Some were pygmy loruses, which are a threatened species."

- Janet Ginsburg