The illegal wildlife trade could be worth as much as $20 billion worldwide, according to some experts.
Every single day, people smuggle animals or their parts into the United States. Yet, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only has 143 inspectors ... for the entire country.
Even though policing the illegal trade can be akin to the proverbial needle in a haystack, the people dedicated to doing just that actually aren't discouraged.
"The needle can be found," said Ken Goddard, who runs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's forensics laboratory in Ashland, Ore.
Each year, they analyze about 1,000 cases and more than 1,500 items. It is the only facility in the world dedicated to investigating crimes against animals.
"There's a whole series of things that can lead you on a trail," he said.
During our time there, reporting for "Dangerous Trade: Exotic Animals", we saw an incredible range of things.
Post-mortem examinations of birds as investigators tried to determine cause of death. A bullet test-fire tank that helped ballistics experts match a victim with a potential suspect. And the piece de resistance: the beetle room.
Despite all the modern technology, the best way to get a clean specimen for forensic research is to toss a carcass into a tank full of beetles. Two weeks later, an animal skull is almost totally clean — and ready to be studied.
"You get used to it," joked Goddard about the smell. "[But] it would have been tough for us to work had the tissue been around the skull."
So they let the beetles take care of it.
We even saw confiscated cartons of Marlboro cigarettes and cookies. Smugglers would insert contraband — anything from tiger bone or rhino horn pills — in the boxes and hope the massive volume of a shipment would mean the boxes full of illegal animal materials would make it through un-checked.
"Are you going to look through 10,000 cookie boxes?"
And that's why smugglers are in business. It's a challenge, but since profit margins are huge —and criminal penalties are light — the reward is worth the risk for many criminals.
In Ashland, Ore., the USFWS determines whether an investigation should be moved to the next level. Meanwhile, at a place like New York's JFK airport, inspectors are the front line in the border battle over exotic animals.
The numerical mismatch is almost unbelievable. JFK alone sees 46 million passengers a year and nearly 1.4 million tons of air cargo, with thousands of tons consisting of animals and animal products.
How many USFWS inspectors? Fifteen.
"We have the staff that we have," said USFWS inspector John Thompson, without a hint of self-pity. "We work with the resources we have, we just try to work strategically."
The strategy is to use time wisely, check as much as possible and try and outsmart the criminals, who can be brazen.
When asked if he’s ever been bribed, here is Thomson’s reply:
"Yes, it was actually just last week," he said. "This broker tried to bribe me to come do the inspection of high value ivory pieces. He's like, 'Between you, me and the lamp post, I'll give you some cash if you do the shipment.'
"There are definitely some sketchy characters out there. When money is on the line, they'll do whatever it takes."
And that’s just from the airport’s perspective. Much of the illegal wildlife trade comes via water. If boats and planes don’t work, people will smuggle items over the border by mail or in a vehicle.
Want needle in a haystack?
In the Port of New York and New Jersey alone, 5.3 million shipping containers were processed in 2010. The cargo’s collective value: $175 billion.
Ivory makes up a large percentage of the illegal trade.
"In 2011, there were a total of 23 tons of elephant ivory seized in that year alone," said Crawford Allan of World Wildlife Fund. "That’s the biggest since our records began in 1989.
"That equates to about two and a half thousand elephants that were killed for that ivory that was seized."
The USFWS estimates that only about 10 percent of the illegal trade gets confiscated.
"That's the tip of the iceberg," Allan said. "What they seize is just a fraction of what is really happening.
"It's the needle in the haystack scenario for law enforcement."
Law enforcement isn’t discouraged by the odds, but they are certainly well aware of them.
Follow Brian Shactman on Twitter @bshactman