Endangered creatures for sale
Illegal animal trade reaps billions yearly
By CHARLES SEABROOK
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Lawrence Wee Soon Chye, who once advised National Geographic filmmakers with his authoritative knowledge of reptiles, hung his head as a federal judge tongue-lashed him in an Orlando courtroom.
"Your crimes are reprehensible," said U.S. District Judge John Antoon. "They not only are a form of animal cruelty, they also endanger public health." Antoon wished out loud that he could sentence Chye to a much longer sentence than the 37 months federal guidelines allow.
Chye, 38, in a prison jumpsuit brilliant as a scarlet macaw, pleaded guilty this month to charges that he smuggled hundreds of endangered and protected creatures to dealers and collectors in the United States last January. His lucrative black market career, likely spawned by his fascination with reptiles as a child in Singapore, was over.
Tens of thousands of endangered wild creatures from Brazil, Indonesia, Ghana and other countries are being smuggled each year to black markets in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan. Traffickers entice native people -- often resourceful children -- to capture coveted animals from rain forests and other wild habitats. A hyacinth macaw bought for $100 from an impoverished Amazon youngster can fetch as much as $10,000 from collectors in the United States and Europe.
Antoon summed up the consequences of the illegal animal trade: Not only does it threaten many species with extinction and risk despoiling entire natural areas, but it also threatens public health by introducing exotic germs, many of them deadly, to humans.
Both of this year's novel scourges, monkeypox and SARS, stemmed from contact with wild animals. And West Nile virus may have originated in the United States with an infected smuggled bird.
It was the rank odor wafting from two boxes shipped from Singapore, boxes labeled "books and magazines," that provoked a U.S. customs inspector at the FedEx hub in Memphis to look inside.
No books. No magazines. The inspector recoiled at what he saw.
Numerous reptiles, a few of them dead, packed tightly inside -- 198 Fly River turtles from New Guinea, 25 Indian star tortoises from India, and three Timor monitor lizards -- among the species protected by international law because of their increasing scarcity in the wild. And many of them potential carriers of deadly exotic diseases that threaten to sicken people and other animals in this country.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service special agents traced the creatures, worth as much as $400,000 on the black market, to Chye, described as a smooth-talking kingpin in the world of animal smuggling. They nabbed him within hours of his arrival in Orlando, where he planned to set up a temporary headquarters.
From his compound in Singapore, authorities say, Chye profited as a broker of rare animals to dealers and individual buyers.
The insatiable demand for exotic pets, from parrots and macaws to pythons and iguanas, is driving the wildlife trade, estimated at $6 billion a year. At the high end are collectors willing to pay thousands of dollars for exceptionally rare animals, like Komodo dragons for $30,000 each and plowshare tortoises at $25,000 each. At the other end are teenagers and apartment dwellers who spend $30 to $75 for animals at pet stores and exotic animal shows and on the Internet.
"Anything that walks, creeps, crawls or flies has a price on its head," says Mike Elkins, deputy assistant law enforcement supervisor for the Fish & Wildlife Service in Atlanta. Trade in endangered animals is generally illegal under a 30-year-old treaty signed by the United States and 162 other countries. But the treaty is little match for the huge profits and minimal risks that lure smugglers -- whose contraband most often ends up in the United States.
And most often ends up dead. Authorities figure that as many as 75 percent of the smuggled creatures die on their long, hot, airless journey.
Interpol, the international police agency, says wildlife smuggling is so pervasive on a global scale, it is surpassed only by the black market in drugs. In many areas, organized gangs, including South American drug cartels and the Russian mafia, have added wildlife smuggling to their other illegitimate activities.
Putting major traffickers like Chye out of business puts a dent in the illicit trade, but perhaps only temporarily, say wildlife authorities. Other traffickers are eager to fill the void, using a variety of ruthless schemes to get endangered wildlife into the hands of dealers, collectors and exotic pet fanciers.
Stopping the smugglers in this country is an overwhelming task, Elkins says, since only 92 federal wildlife inspectors are assigned to airports and border crossings nationwide. And preventing the extinction of some species may be impossible.
"With the loss of habitat and the illegal smuggling of animals for profit and gain, there are many animals that are . . . going to go extinct," says Ernest Mayer, head of special operations for the Fish & Wildlife Service. "So I think from that standpoint we're losing."
First U.S. stop: Miami
Most of the black market animals entering the United States arrive by air.
The hot spot in the Southeast is Miami International, with its connections to South America. Opening cartons there, the airport's five wildlife inspectors routinely find snakes, lizards, tortoises, parrots -- and sometimes baby orangutans.
In an airport warehouse, inspector Jim Stinebaugh cautiously slits open a large box labeled "Live Frogs."
"No matter how many times you do this, you get a little antsy," he says. Poisonous snakes are sometimes found inside shipments.
In this box, Stinebaugh finds layer upon layer of plastic foam cups with lids. Each holds a thumb-size frog, snatched from the wild and shipped from the South American country of Suriname.
Another box holds dozens of clear plastic containers, each harboring a crawly rose-haired tarantula spider from Chile. "They'll spray you with hairs if you make them mad," Stinebaugh warns.
This time the animals are legal, he concludes -- headed for pet shops in the United States and Canada.
As best he can, he checks to see if any endangered species are stashed with the legal animals, a common ploy of wildlife smugglers.
He is mindful that one smuggling tactic is to pile bags containing water monitors -- aggressive lizards that can be shipped legally -- atop an endangered animal at the bottom of a crate. The smugglers know that most inspectors are reluctant to shove around snapping lizards to look for contraband beneath.
One of the world's most notorious wildlife smugglers, Keng Liang "Anson" Wong, 44 -- released last month from a federal prison in California after serving six years -- used this method. From his private zoo in Malaysia, he shipped thousands of rare and endangered creatures, mostly reptiles, to collectors in the United States, Japan and Europe.
To fool airport customs and wildlife inspectors, he bound the rare animals with tape so they couldn't move and stuffed them in burlap bags stapled to the bottom of shipping crates. Many died from the harsh shipping conditions, but Wong stood to profit as long as some survived.
In Miami, Stinebaugh's boss, Vicky Vina, says that on a good day, inspectors there are able to peek inside about three in every 10 shipments.
"We get awfully busy," she says. "We often get 60 to 70 wildlife shipments through here in one day."
Scores of animals -- mostly reptiles -- were smuggled through Miami by Chye, Wong and others.
Not all smuggled animals come through cargo facilities. Airline passengers hide live creatures in their baggage and clothing. Miami's agents have found tiny marmoset monkeys under hats, parrot chicks and baby snakes in underwear, and little tortoises stuffed in baggy pants.
Once, when customs inspectors in the Miami terminal noticed a woman's bust wiggling, they found rare parrot chicks stuffed in her bra. More recently, a man's heavy, loose-fitting clothing was a tip-off -- he was trying to smuggle 44 birds through the airport by taping them inside toilet paper tubes and securing the tubes to his legs.
Sometimes the animals are simply stashed in suitcases.
In one Argentinian passenger's suitcase, Miami inspectors found 107 chaco tortoises, 102 red-footed tortoises, 76 tartaruga turtles, 20 red Tegu lizards, seven rainbow boa constrictors and five Argentine boa constrictors -- all barred from global trade.
"Smugglers use every little trick they can muster to stay one step ahead of us," says Jorge Picon, wildlife agent in charge at Miami. "It's a never-ending struggle."
In business since '97
Chye, a short, trim man whose dark horn-rimmed glasses give him a professorial look, acknowledged in court documents that he had bought, sold and traded reptiles -- legally and illegally -- since 1997.
"He had a strong interest in animals and at one point worked for National Geographic as a consultant," said his federal public defender, Stephen Langs. Chye made no statements in court, and Langs refused to let him be interviewed.
Prosecutors said he shipped hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of protected animals to dealers and collectors in Florida, Massachusetts, California and Washington state. Most were sent via FedEx, labeled as books, magazines, lamps or other merchandise.
One California collector said Chye sent him an emerald tree monitor, which grows as long as 34 inches, and a yellow boa constrictor in a shipment labeled as "microwave safe" plastic container samples. Both reptiles are protected.
In August 2002, according to court records, Chye, using the alias Jon Morelia, (Morelia is the genus name for carpet and diamond python snakes) met University of Central Florida business student Michael Barrera at the International Reptile Breeders Exposition in Daytona Beach. Barrera claimed to be an Internet reptile dealer.
He and Chye agreed to do business together. Chye, in a show of friendship, invited Barrera to Indonesia to go "reptile hunting."
Barrera was the eventual recipient of the odoriferous shipment of turtles, tortoises and monitor lizards that came through Memphis in January, touching off the investigation of Chye.
When confronted, Barrera told authorities about several previous illegal shipments between himself and Chye involving hundreds of endangered snakes, lizards and turtles. Several of the reptiles died en route. At one point, he said, Chye offered to send him Komodo dragons, one of the world's most endangered species.
Barrera has not been charged. He could not be reached for comment for this article. In court papers, he said he had known what he was doing was illegal and that he "had been stupid" to get involved with Morelia.
A collector in Washington state tipped off investigators that Chye and a business associate were flying from Bangkok, Thailand, to Orlando in June to set up a temporary smuggling operation.
The associate, Leong Tian Kum, 33, a Bangkok reptile dealer, was arrested with Chye shortly after they landed at Orlando International Airport.
Kum, aka "Bobby Lee," was charged with money laundering and illegally sending endangered animals to a Wisconsin dealer. Authorities said he shipped pancake tortoises from East Africa, Hermann's tortoises from the Mediterranean rim countries, and Borneo leaf turtles in FedEx packages -- labeled "native crafts."
Arrested in Waukesha, Wis., was Reid Turowski, 28, owner of Captive Bred Specialties, who was accused of illegally receiving the animals from Lum. Both men face more than 10 years in prison.
The dead zone
Many smugglers avoid live animals altogether. They traffic in dead animals, or their parts, fueling a black market that parallels the pet trade -- and adding to the threat to individual animals, species and ecosystems.
Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport receives relatively few live animals, though it gets plenty of illegal objects made from rare animals -- skins, shawls, carved ivory objects and the like.
When U.S. authorities find endangered or otherwise illegal animal parts at airports and border crossings, they are sent to the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver, a facility that bears stark testimony to the size and breadth of this market.
Shelves are piled high with boots, wallets, purses, briefcases and coats made of the skin of elephants, caimans, cobras, leopards, jaguars and other animals. Bins sag with hair clips, combs and necklaces carved from sea turtle shells. Tons of confiscated elephant ivory occupy other bins. The "Asian Medicine Section" holds black bear gallbladders, dried tiger penises and powders and extracts made of tiger bones and black rhino horns.
Locked in a cabinet are more than 50 softer-than-silk "shahtoosh" shawls, many seized from an international smuggling ring. The shawls, worth $30,000 each on the black market, are made from the fine hair of endangered Tibetan antelopes, which must be killed before their hair can be harvested.
Though the warehouse is crammed with confiscated animal products, it's still just a holding facility. Most of the illegal merchandise will end up in schools or museums or being sold at auction.
"We're constantly turning over our inventory," says Special Agent in Charge Bernadette Atencio. "If we didn't, we'd be stacked up in no time."
Trade shows popular
By far the most lucrative side of the wildlife trade is live animals.
Nearly 7 million U.S. households have a pet bird, and 4 million have a pet snake, iguana or turtle, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Some of the interest comes from people who live in apartments or those with allergies to dogs and cats.
Particularly unusual animals, however, are attention getters and status symbols.
The fascination with exotic pets perhaps is most apparent at the more than 400 wild pet expos held around the country each year.
Typical of those gatherings is the Atlanta Reptile and Exotic Pet Show, held last month at the Gwinnett Gwinnett Civic & Cultural Center. Scores of visitors paid $7 apiece to get in, then stood in line at booth after booth to buy exotic pets.
A Brazilian rainbow boa, $175. A Goliath bird-eating tarantula, $100. A Bengal cat kitten, $400. A Moluccan cockatoo, $1,500. Emerald tree boa, $275. African spur-thigh tortoise, $225.
Authorities say Chye and other global wildlife dealers are regulars at some of the bigger shows, making valuable contacts and deals there. Most dealers are believed to be operating legally.
Most of the animals they offer for sale were likely bred legally in captivity, which authorities say avoids harm to wild populations -- but not in every case.
The animals may have been snatched illegally from the wild, a cheaper source of inventory for dealers.
The problem is determining if an animal is captive-bred or smuggled.
"Once an animal is smuggled in, it's difficult to determine if it's legal or illegal," says Tom Watts-Fitzgerald, a U.S. attorney who prosecutes smuggling cases in Miami. "Dealers claim their animals are captive-bred and legal.
"But if you go to a pet show or a store to buy an exotic pet, you really have no foolproof way of knowing if it's legal or not."