By Jennifer Steinhauer
Published: April 6, 2007
LOS ANGELES: Somewhere amid the rolling suitcases, plastic baggies filled with lip gloss, the laptops, skis and other sundry items streaming through Los Angeles International Airport, there are, occasionally, rare butterflies, elephant tusks, sea turtle eggs and, in one case, a pair of pygmy monkeys, stuffed down the pants of an incoming passenger.
Wildlife smuggling is the second-largest black market in the United States, just behind narcotics, accounting for $8 billion to $10 billion a year in sales, said Joseph Johns, the chief of the environmental crimes section in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
Its location makes California a prime spot for catching people who kill, smuggle or do other untoward things with rare species and exotic plants.
"California is the most populous state in the nation and one of the busiest international ports," said Roy Torres, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Between LAX and the Los Angeles harbor and the San Francisco harbor, there are major ports of entry where tremendous amounts of products are smuggled into and out of the country."
Armed with federal laws and international treaties that govern wildlife, Johns' bureau, which has grown from one prosecutor to six in the last eight years, prosecutes poaching cases, illegal imports of rare animals and plants, and the killing of endangered species. Last year, a Japanese man who trafficked in Queen Alexandra's birdwings, one of the largest butterflies in the world, was arrested, as were four people accused of dealing in endangered dragon fish.
In 2002, a Palm Springs man was arrested on charges related to the smuggling of two Asian leopard cats into the airport in a backpack.
His traveling companion was arrested when large birds of paradise came flying out of his luggage; also in the luggage were other birds stuffed into women's stockings and 50 rare orchid bulbs. Two lesser slow lorises, also known as pygmy monkeys, were stuffed into his underwear.
"It was a shockingly hilarious visual," Johns said. "But if you think about the trauma those little primates went through. I mean, 18 hours on a trip from Asia," undetected by flight attendants, who, as Johns noted, "don't probably stare at men's crotches" in search of illegal imports.
Coming soon is the indictment of a man accused of smuggling reptiles from South Asia in his prosthetic leg. "It is a really good case," Johns said.
While many people who bring in rare or exotic animals keep them as pets, often as part of a menagerie of endangered species, he said, most of them have business on the mind.
Rare and exotic fish are often sold to dealers or individual aquarium enthusiasts. The man with the butterflies sold two for $8,500, according to his indictment. (He had also offered the endangered giant swallowtail, a Jamaican butterfly, for sale.)
Buyers throughout the world also create a market for animal parts used as aphrodisiacs or food. For example, Johns said, snake heads "are highly sought after in our large Korean community."
Among his unit's more unusual seizures, he cited a large collection of elephant tusks, bear bile that a high-priced prostitute arranged to have mailed from China and a monkey flown from Vietnam in the defendant's purse that was apparently destined for a stew. "We have pictures of that thing cowering," Johns said.
Once an animal is taken from the wild, it generally cannot be returned to its place of origin, for fear of disease, and is often placed in a local zoo, where the chances of long-term survival can be problematic.
Occasionally, poachers are part of a broader criminal enterprise.
Earlier this year, a pastor from the Bay Area Family Church, Holy Spirit Association for Unification of World Christianity, pleaded guilty to a role in a scheme to harvest baby leopard sharks from San Francisco Bay for selling. The sharks are highly sought by aquarium enthusiasts.
Torres, who investigated the case, said poachers connected to the church had stumbled upon a pupping spot in the bay, where they had fished for the sharks for a decade.
The proceeds from the poaching operations, he said, were used to finance church ministries, including a program that took members out to sea to teach them "ocean ethics, which seemed rather paradoxical."
Besides violating international treaties and U.S. laws, the importing of non-indigenous wildlife poses other threats. "You might understand why we don't want piranhas released in the Mississippi River," Johns said.