MIAMI - Wildlife Inspector Carlos Pages vividly remembers the times when he opened a crate of imported animals only to discover that not all of them were still in the cloth bags that serve as their shipping cages. Those are the moments when his speed trumps their speed. "We managed to get them repackaged," said Pages. Fortunately, those kinds of escapes are not common. And just as fortunately, neither Pages nor any of his five U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inspector colleagues at Miami International Airport have ever been bitten.
MIAMI - Wildlife Inspector Carlos Pages vividly remembers the times when he opened a crate of imported animals only to discover that not all of them were still in the cloth bags that serve as their shipping cages. Those are the moments when his speed trumps their speed.
"We managed to get them repackaged," said Pages. Fortunately, those kinds of escapes are not common. And just as fortunately, neither Pages nor any of his five U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inspector colleagues at Miami International Airport have ever been bitten.
And there is plenty to bite them. Miami International, which sprawls across more than 3,200 acres and is still growing, is big enough to be listed as one of the few civilian emergency backup landing sites for the space shuttle. It also ranks first in the United States in international freight shipments and in live animal traffic. That translates into about 3,000 live wildlife shipments every month, spot-checked by Service's Office of Law Enforcement airport field office.
Authorities estimate that the wildlife trade in the United States is a billion-dollar business and the potential for illegal profits pushes it into the top three smuggling crimes, right alongside drugs and guns. Resident Agent in Charge Eddie McKissick guesses that, pound-for-pound, illicit profits in wildlife probably exceed those of cocaine.
"How much we stop is significant," said McKissick, "but I still worry about what's getting through."
McKissick said the illegal trade in wildlife runs in fads. "For awhile, giant fruit bats were in vogue. Then it was poison arrow frogs, then marmosets. It's a constantly changing market, driven in some measure simply by what wealthy people don't have." (Poison arrow frogs are so named because they supply the lethal liquid used by South American Indians on the tips of their arrows).
It's a strange market indeed.
On this day, Pages and fellow Wildlife Inspector Sarita Valentin are to inspect a stack of crates, almost all of which contain at least 100 bird-eating spiders (the Goliath tarantula of South America, which commonly eats hatchlings but has been known to consume adult hummingbirds) or 500 giant African scorpions, or deadly puff adders, vipers or the legendary black mamba, a snake said to be capable of moving at 7 miles per hour and able to kill a human within minutes.
Inspections of shipments like these can be tricky (if one of the animals gets loose); they also require great care and skill, an expert knowledge of species descriptions (the animal inside the box must match the manifest), and be performed quick enough that the animals -- provided all is in order -- can continue on their way.
"These men and women in our law enforcement operation are really on the front line of the wildlife trade," said Service Director H. Dale Hall. "The work they do in ports of entry across the country can be dangerous. It's time-consuming. And it's important. I'm very proud of all of them."
Some inspections are easier than others -- like the time a Komodo dragon came through, housed in a cage bigger than several airline baggage carts.
However, in today's shipment, there are 10 black mambas, listed in the shipment paperwork as being worth $2,000. Some 150 poison arrow frogs are listed at $600 and 25 puff adders, $500. Those are the wholesale prices. The retailer will turn a profit that would take your breath away faster than a black mamba.
And profits in the illegal trade are far greater. "We caught a guy with a suitcase full of bird-eating spiders," said McKissick. "He also had 200 poison arrow frogs and some boa snakes. He bought all of that overseas for about $350. He could have sold the entire contents of the suitcase for about $45,000."
As in the smuggling of guns and drugs, it is that kind of money that drives the illegal wildlife trade; it is those profits that push smugglers to view some wildlife deaths in illegal shipments as simply a cost of doing business. The markup is so high, smugglers can lose half their animals and still make a small fortune.
A few years ago, a wildlife dealer with a legal import business was apprehended because he had also veered off into the illegal market. Despite making $6 million a year with his legal business, he couldn't resist making another $3 million, illegally. Why? "Because he could," McKissick said.
Poisonous snakes, like a lot of animals, are shipped in cloth bags stapled to the sides of wooden crates. To be inspected, the open part of a bag is taped around the mouth of a clear, sealed cylinder. That enables the inspector to see what is in the bag without being exposed to any danger. It is not foolproof; there are some snakes that are able to bite through cloth, and require more careful handling.
Eighty percent of live animal shipments to Miami are imports from Africa, South America or Europe, and between 70 and 75 percent of those go to the commercial pet trade. Wildlife trade is regulated by agreements under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the 172-member international organization of which the United States is a member. Virtually every wild animal that enters the U.S. must be accompanied by a correct CITES permit and supporting paperwork from the exporting nation. (Most of the shipments through the Port of Miami go through the airport; live animals are rarely, if ever, transported by sea).
There is almost no limit to what wildlife inspectors have found or seized in Miami. More than 300 dried seahorses smuggled from Peru. Packages of spiders from Brazil and Belize with illegal paperwork. Three endangered South American river turtles. And more unnerving than most -- two brown tree snakes, which were promptly sent back to Indonesia. (Brown tree snakes have exterminated all the songbirds of Guam and have become a major threat to people. A major concern is that the snake might be introduced elsewhere, either accidentally or deliberately).
"This kind of operation is all about tactics," said McKissick, "ours -- and theirs. We can tell we're gaining if there's a dip in seizures. That means the other side is changing their tactics. And it means we have to change -- to keep up. They know we're coming, and that we'll always be coming, and we don't give up."