FWS agents hunt traffickers in 'different kind of jungle'

ELIZABETH, N.J. -- The short drive between the Fish and Wildlife Service office at the seaport here to New York City is a gritty maze of snarled highways, railroad tracks and airstrips.

Business comes first here. Nature's an afterthought -- except for FWS officers.

While African savannas and Amazon swamps are a world away, the nation's third-largest port is the front line of the agency's crusade to end the U.S. role in the $20-billion-and-growing illegal wildlife trade.

Self-proclaimed "Jersey boy" Carmine Sabia, the resident agent in charge for the Fish and Wildlife Northeast Region's Central District, puts it this way: Land doesn't smuggle ivory, furs and reptile skins. People do.

"It's a different kind of jungle," Sabia said.


Trailing only China, the United States is the world's second-largest market for legal animal products. The legal trade is blamed for papering over a booming black market.

Not only is demand for ivory and other products fueling poaching that experts say threatens elephants and other species with extinction, it's also putting money in the pockets of terrorists and organized crime that U.S. officials say profit from the trade.

Yet in the United States, only 323 FWS law enforcement agents scour America's borders for illegal products.

The service has 121 unarmed wildlife inspectors funded via user import-export fees -- which brought in $21.5 million last year -- spread across 18 major U.S. ports helped, as available, by 202 armed special agents.

In February, the Obama administration banned the commercial trade of ivory, a major illegal moneymaker, but the nation's first line of defense in enforcing the ban has received scant reinforcements.

The FWS Office of Law Enforcement received $64.7 million through congressional appropriations for fiscal 2014. Lawmakers approved a 4 percent increase for wildlife trafficking in the spending deal that squeaked through the chambers earlier this month.

Since the office opened in 1977, the budget and inspector numbers have struggled to keep pace with the exponential growth of trade; the number of agents has actually slightly declined.

Checking everything simply isn't possible, but despite being inherently overmatched, Fish and Wildlife agents are considered by many as the world's most effective illegal wildlife trade enforcement team.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement continues to be the premier law enforcement agency in the world when it comes to combating wildlife trafficking," said Deputy Chief Ed Grace.

Grace said other countries regularly come to the United States for help training their wildlife officers, and Ashland, Ore., is home to the world's only wildlife crime forensics laboratory (Greenwire, April 25, 2012). Undercover operations yielding headline-stealing large stings and seizures have recently gone international with agent deployments to embassies in Peru, Botswana, Tanzania and Thailand.

Do you have anything to declare?

Just weeks from retirement, Sabia has plenty of stories from "back in the day."

Since he first donned the boxy, beige Fish and Wildlife inspector uniform, the bulk of Sabia's three decades on the force has been spent within the constantly swirling orbit of greater New York City's runways.

Two things are constant: fashion and manpower.

Port Newark has grown in size to trail only New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and Los Angeles as America's biggest ports, mostly due to a rising number of imports from designer Italian brands and their knockoffs.

The number of agents and inspectors hasn't kept pace. The Central District, which is responsible for New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has added only one staffer since Sabia started in 1984.

Currently, there are five wildlife inspectors, three special agents -- one in Elizabeth and two in Pennsylvania -- a support staffer and Sabia. Five employees actively monitor the 122-square-mile greater port area, while two more inspector slots sit vacant.

Dealing with annual 20 percent jumps in total cargo in recent years, inspectors have increased efficiency through technology and education, but Sabia said, most of the time, "we're just trying to keep up with the paperwork."

Last year, inspectors checked the documentation on almost all the 17,103 shipments containing wildlife -- declared or caught -- on their way through the ocean port, the nearby Postal Service international mail facility, Newark Liberty International Airport, piers in Brooklyn and Staten Island, or various other warehouses.

The total doesn't factor in mail or packages at customs that might get a once-over from an inspector, but of the 17,103 shipments accounted for, only 2 percent -- roughly one shipment per day -- were hand-checked.

Occasionally catching smugglers red-handed will make headlines, but more likely, inspectors know they are seizing illegal property before cracking open a container. Reviews of itemized documentation detailing scientific names, origin and other information are required to ensure companies and hired importers comply with international, domestic and state law.

"We're not here just to interdict illegal wildlife, we are here to facilitate the local trade," Sabia said.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty honored by about 180 nations to prevent species extinctions, provides a base line for each species from which a gaggle of federal conservation laws -- the African Elephant Conservation Act, Lacey Act and others -- can only become stricter. State laws are stricter still and give state agents more enforcement powers.

"Invariably, they are going to make a mistake," Sabia said of shippers dealing with stacks of paperwork. "They'll know it's a snake, but they won't know what kind."

Inspectors frequently conduct compliance interviews to clear up confusion, especially with first-time shippers unaware products they can trade in one country aren't allowed into the United States.

"From A to Z, they just go through it to avoid that same issue or problem from occurring," Sabia said.

Leilani Sanchez, inspector supervisor in Newark, said the agency really "put the white hat on" during the lead-up to and aftermath of the White House's controversial ivory ban earlier this year as outreach helped carve out an exception for musicians with ivory-infused instruments.

Pound for pound, Sabia said, his office has "actually had a lot of success" and serves as a "model for the rest of the world," with one caveat.

"To a point, we are efficient," he said. "People are going to break down; the machine can only do so much."

'Hit and miss'

Sanchez dubs the international mail facility the Wild West of the port complex, and it might be most indicative of what inspectors are up against on a daily basis.

Like sagebrush, packages move steadily along conveyor belts as far as the eye can see across the more than million square feet of the facility.

Only able to scratch the surface during roughly once-a-week visits to the facility, inspectors armed with official "opened and resealed for U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspection" tape have to learn where to scratch.

"You gotta think like a person with something to hide," inspector Michael Fusco said.

All business, Fusco looks for overtaped, too-heavy, leaky or otherwise conspicuous parcels.

"It's hit and miss," Fusco said. "There is no specific box that you would say, 'Hey, that's illegal wildlife.' It could be anything random."

One day, 50 boxes come up empty. The next, inside an innocuous package are hundreds of live leeches, a protected species. Sanchez said pets, like the cockatiel she recently signed off on, and live animals must meet humane transport standards.

Boxes that catch Fusco's trained eye hit an X-ray scanner belt. If something suspicious appears on the two monitors amid the varying colors assigned to different materials, Fusco will open, inspect and retape parcels as delicately as possible.

For larger ocean containers, advancing X-ray technology and the advent of centralized examination stations have also helped streamline inspections.

"Before, they cut the seal and [said], 'All right, have at it, guys,' kind of deal," Sabia said, recalling trips down to the docks where he and a partner would burn at least half a day unloading, examining and repacking a single container.

Today, selected containers wait empty at centralized examination stations located throughout the port, and warehouses set aside pallets in question.

Newark inspectors also have access to one of only two Fish and Wildlife X-ray vans in the country, but it takes nearly the entire office to run, meaning it's left idle more often than not.

On a rare day of use, inspectors in the back of the van look for anomalies on X-ray screens while other inspectors feed parcels onto the belt between the back of the van and the cab.

Scans can still tell only so much. Inspectors have to crack into a crate filled with Namibian hunting trophies.

Ranging from a single mounted head to full safari scenes, hunting trophies are another facet of the wildlife trade. Provided proper permits are obtained, importation even of protected species can be granted an exception.

Digging through shredded packing paper, they find inside hides, horns and skulls from dik-diks, African porcupines, zebras, springbok, oryxes.

It's a far cry from the high-end fashion in a warehouse they inspect later that same afternoon.

Fashion season in full swing, inspectors carefully pick their way to the center of a shipment looking for out-of-place packages or faults in the paperwork for shoes trimmed with reticulated python and handbags made out of caiman, a South American crocodile cousin.

Inspectors are trained extensively on concealment techniques but rely heavily on past experience, like finding an endangered pelt layered between common ones, to educate their guesswork.

Prior run-ins also earn bad actors extra scrutiny.

"Usually, it takes them a while to get it right," Sabia said.

Interagency cooperation

The paperwork for the high-end shipment and Namibian crate is in order, but back in the "Wild West," one package isn't so lucky.

Stuffed in a box with what looks like traditional Asian medicines are pain patches rubber-banded together in packs.

In the ingredients listed on the back, inspectors spot the familiar Chinese symbols for primate and tiger, both protected species. Inspectors have seen it before.

"You know the Icy Hot patches. You peel it off and you go, 'Look, oh, I'm better'?" inspector Kyle Covill said. "It's the same thing."

But it wasn't Fish and Wildlife that pulled them off the belt, but a lawman from a different agency.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which has several hundred officers stationed throughout the port system, snagged the suspicious box.

All the agencies, most with superior manpower to Fish and Wildlife, weave themselves into a net of extra eyes and ears to help catch illegal wildlife by enforcing various regulations.

"They're here every day," Fusco said. "So if they open up a box and it's of interest, they'll put it to the side for us for verification."

Interagency communication has been a point of emphasis for the overstretched wildlife inspectors. Sanchez said it's paying off.

"If they're looking at a shipment and they see something that they can't identify, they talk to us," she said. "We obviously do the same for them."

Border agents at a centralized examination station were the ones who pulled aside the Namibian shipment for inspectors.

"It may not wind up being a retention or a seizure, but it's definitely something Fish and Wildlife should be looking at," said Louis Rivera, deputy chief for Customs and Border Protection. "No one agency has the [ability] to deal with all the issues, so you work together."

Fish and Wildlife also collaborates with other agencies when conducting sting operations that require FWS agents to go undercover.

Most of the headlines about large ivory seizures and arrests come from such operations, cases like that of Zhifei Li, sentenced to 70 months in prison in May for being the ringleader behind smuggling $4.5 million of rhino horn and ivory (Greenwire, May 28).

Sabia said, however, stings like that only further illustrate the importance of their task and how much must be slipping by undetected.

Show and tell

Judging by the purple clutch lying on the table in the storage room at the Elizabeth office, a cross between a taxidermy zoo and a rich grandmother's wardrobe, it's easy to see that fakes are getting better as fashions come and go.

Covill points to tiny holes, like minuscule versions of golf ball dimples, that are the only thing distinguishing an expensive purse made of reptile leather from a knockoff.

A specialist in the show-and-tell education aspect of law enforcement, Covill has an example for nearly every regulation inspectors enforce lying on the table and nearby shelves.

Sometimes the fakes look better than the real thing. Other times, the difference is plain.

"If it's in Five Below, you know it's fake, a printing of it on vinyl, but then you get something like this," he said, holding up a tanned elephant-hide belt.

Leather was a leading category among the 115 shipments refused entry into the port since February due to wildlife regulations.

Imitation fur also has come a long way, but the real thing still crops up from time to time, despite its declining popularity. As examples, the office displays an ocelot coat bought on eBay that Fusco pinched off the line and a protected seal handbag that Covill confiscated after noticing its fur resembled a dark, oily leopard's.

For those without the cash for an entire heel covering in the leather, there are shoes trimmed with the buyer's choice in python, a "huge" trade, Sanchez said, versatile enough to keep up with the trends.

"They'll use the same species, but some years it will be a belly cut, the next year it will be a back cut," she said. "It kind of depends on what the fashion industry is selling as the new hot thing."

A critically endangered sea turtle, scraped of all soft tissue and lacquered for shine, was easy to spot, but Covill said inspectors often rely on a list of reputable experts when it comes to products that are more difficult to identify.

He confiscated a brain coral, a bleached white exoskeleton mounted and ready for a bookshelf, due to improper permitting but sought out an expert from the New York Aquarium for another remnant of reef.

"We're not experts on everything," Covill said. "We have to fall back on people that have been doing it for 30 to 40 years."

If conclusive DNA evidence is required, products can also be shipped to the state-of-the-art Fish and Wildlife Service lab in Ashland, Ore.

'This cures what ails you'

The Newark storage room also houses tusks ranging from those the burly Covill has to hold with both hands to small ones Sanchez said she sees more and more as ivory's black market value is well over $1,000 per kilogram. Carved snuff bottles that look straight from the old world lie on the display table, but their ivory was harvested after trading was banned internationally.

In the past five years, inspectors have made 116 seizures involving elephant parts: ivory piano keys, carvings and jewelry, as well as feet, teeth, tusks and leather.

Then there are the medicinals, "dietary supplements" guaranteeing recoveries and usually lacking any scientific basis.

Everything from thousands of turtles and badger parts to 7 pounds of centipedes, all proclaimed to "cure" an array of ailments, have been confiscated by inspectors since 2010.

Speculation swirls that sea horses cure male impotence and boost stamina, so Covill said poachers "cleanse the Earth of Hippocampus species."

"They're bringing them in by thousands. We catch them occasionally shoved in with a fish shipment," he said.

It's similar to the unfounded rumors that rhino horn cured a Vietnamese minister's cancer despite containing nothing more than keratin found in human fingernails. Poaching of the critically endangered species, more valuable than gold on the black market, is soaring.

Covill picked up a bottle of elixir claiming to contain 5.6 percent tiger bone. It advertises a laundry list of remedies for lumbago, rheumatism, muscle and skeletal and regulatory function, and a host of "kindred ills."

"This cures what ails you," Covill said. "If you're sick, take a shot."

Even if the bottle or the pain patches nicked at the international mail facility don't contain what's billed, seizures are still made.

"If they are marketing it as tiger, we accept it as real because ... if this says tiger and there is no tiger ... you're still increasing demand," Covill said.

Few but proud, the inspectors at Port Newark can only do so much.

"Snakeskin shoes, snakeskin boots, alligator handbags, those things have been in vogue forever, so I guess it's never going to go out of fashion. As long as it's in fashion, there is going to be demand," Sabia said. "We're going to have a job for a long time."

Twitter: @DylanBrown26 | Email: dbrown@eenews.net

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