WASHINGTON — Nothing surprises Edward Grace anymore.
Women pretending to be pregnant while smuggling monkeys under their blouses. Men wearing hidden vests with pockets full of endangered sea-turtle eggs. Guys with baby Burmese pythons in burlap bags shoved down their pants.
Grace is a top law-enforcement officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has watched travelers hop on and off international flights for decades, and over the years he has seen some pretty wild stuff.
“Every hour, every day, there’s a wildlife product being smuggled into the United States,” Grace said.
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And slowing the flow of illegal trade is about to get much harder for what Grace calls America’s “thin green line” against petty pet smugglers and criminal cartels seeking to grow rich using protected animals such as African elephants and rhinoceroses, both at risk of extinction.
Facing a financial hit from the recent budget-cutting sequester, the Fish and Wildlife Office of Law Enforcement recently canceled plans to train 24 new agents who investigate criminal activity, Grace said.
Also, fourteen vacancies for wildlife inspectors who eyeball people and shipping containers at major ports of entry will not be filled. Nor will three positions at the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, the world’s only forensic outfit to investigate wildlife crimes. Overtime and weekend inspections of shipments will be scrapped.
The unit is already stretched, Grace said, with only as many agents — 218 — as there were in 1978, three years after the unit was established to bolster the Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, Grace said, animal poaching has become more deadly, the list of protected species keeps growing and the number of international travelers has skyrocketed, overwhelming wildlife inspectors.
Americans buy a lot of legal wildlife products: furs, shoes, boots and belts for the fashion industry; exotic fish, birds and reptiles for the pet industry; protected woods for various musical instruments; and tons of food for restaurants. Last year, U.S. wildlife inspectors cleared more than 186,000 legal shipments of wildlife products valued at $4 billion.
The ugly flip side is that the United States is also a top destination for products funneled through a bustling illegal trade that threatens thousands of species of marine and terrestrial plants and animals around the globe.
“We can’t quantify how much is getting by us,” Grace said. “But do we know stuff is getting by us? Yes.”
Some couriers are tourists who buy trinkets abroad without realizing they are breaking a law. The worst offenders are couriers for the cartels.
They work to pass off huge shipments of caviar from protected sturgeon as legal by using false labels, and sneak horns and tusks hacked off African rhinoceroses and elephants in the same way drug dealers move their supplies — using hidden luggage compartments, shipping crates and hollowed-out spaces in cars driven across borders.
As enforcement is diminished, a U.S. delegation led by Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe was at the 16th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Wild Fauna and Flora in Bangkok, trying to compel about 175 other member nations to strengthen protections for certain species.
The delegation recently lost a fight with Canada and Greenland over toughening laws for polar bears, but it won stronger protections for freshwater turtles and tortoises in Asia and the United States. Half of these turtles and tortoises face extinction because of legal and illegal trade for food and pets, as well as urban sprawl that destroys habitat.
Under convention rules, animals on the list of 4,000 protected species worldwide cannot be transported, killed as hunting trophies or used as fashion items without a permit.
Permit approval can take three months. Anything other than the plant or animal specified on a permit is subject to seizure by enforcement agencies across the world.
But that threat hasn’t kept smugglers from trying because, some conservation groups say, the convention’s bark is worse than its bite.
To its credit, the convention has “been successful in raising consciousness in Africa, Asia and Latin America … about the consequences in illegal wildlife trade,” Lee Talbot, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax Co., Va., said in an interview with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
But its success has been up and down, “a kind of roller coaster,” said Talbot, who attended the first meeting and is considered a founding father of the talks.
The convention banned the sale of ivory worldwide in 1989, helping to increase the African elephant and rhino populations. But later it allowed poor African countries to sell off stockpiled ivory confiscated from poachers and taken from animals that died of natural causes — making it easier for criminals to launder tusks as legitimate.
Fish and Wildlife is conducting a large-scale investigation, Operation Crash, targeting traders of rhinoceros horns. The probe has led to the seizure of 37 horns and products made from them over the 1½ years since its launch, according to Fish and Wildlife.
In the past year, seven people have been arrested, including Jin Zhao Feng, a Chinese citizen, who allegedly oversaw the transfer of dozens of horns from the United States to China.
At Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, inspector Catharine Cockey displayed goods she seized over a 25-year career — tiger skin taken from a hunter who shot an animal that was too young, a handbag made from a dwarf crocodile and a bottled potion with several dead snakes, reputed to ease arthritis pain.
Some confiscated items are kept at ports for show-and-tell at schools, but most are sent to a repository in Colorado.