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12 Seized Shipments: The Exotic Animal Trade

Smuggling Exotic Animals
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Rare and beautiful, exotic animals have spurred an illegal trade worth more than $10 billion worldwide, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. Live animals fuel an illegal pet trade, while products made from exotic animals, such as medicines and ivory carvings, can fetch large sums in the underground market. Given the possibility of enormous profits, smugglers use inventive methods to get live animals and their products inside U.S. borders. While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service battles t
Photo: Jeff Rotman | The Image Bank | Getty Images

Rare and beautiful, exotic animals have spurred an illegal trade worth more than $10 billion worldwide, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Live animals fuel an illegal pet trade, while products made from exotic animals, such as medicines and ivory carvings, can fetch large sums in the underground market. Given the possibility of enormous profits, smugglers use inventive methods to get live animals and their products inside U.S. borders.

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service battles the illegal trade at the front lines, they are limited by staffing levels. At John F. Kennedy International Airport, for instance, there were just 15 agents to check the 46,514,154 passengers and 1,379,733 tons of air cargo that came through the airport in 2010. For every smuggler caught, there are many who go free.

From air, land and sea, these 12 examples show the risks smugglers will take in the hunt for large profits.

By Jennifer Schlesinger, CNBC Associate Producer
Posted 16 May 2012

Reptiles in Toy Shipment
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Labeled as a shipment of toys, this international mail package instead housed protected turtles into the United States. The sender, a businessman from Asia, was found to have smuggled protected reptiles, including Burmese star tortoises, Chinese water dragons and saltwater crocodile. He pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy, smuggling and false labeling of imported wildlife and was sentenced to a 39-month prison term.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Labeled as a shipment of toys, this international mail package instead housed protected turtles into the United States. The sender, a businessman from Asia, was found to have smuggled protected Burmese star tortoises, Chinese water dragons and saltwater crocodile. He pleaded guilty to felony charges of conspiracy, smuggling and false labeling of imported wildlife and was sentenced to a 39-month prison term.

Tiny Passengers in Trousers
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Two pygmy lorises, small protected primates from Asia whose habitat is threatened due to habitat destruction, were discovered in a pouch hidden within the trousers of a traveler at Los Angeles International Airport. Although the tiny animals survived the trip, some of the smuggler’s other contraband - exotic birds of paradise - did not make it.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Two pygmy lorises, small protected primates from Asia whose habitat is threatened due to habitat destruction, were discovered in a pouch hidden within the trousers of a traveler at Los Angeles International Airport. Although the tiny animals survived the trip, some of the smuggler’s other contraband — exotic birds of paradise — did not.


Smuggled Songbirds
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A Los Angeles-area man was sentenced to four months in prison after authorities noticed feathers beneath his pants legs and droppings on his shoes and discovered 14 songbirds strapped to his legs. The few survivors are now on display at the San Diego Zoo.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A Los Angeles-area man was sentenced to four months in prison after authorities noticed feathers beneath his pants legs and droppings on his shoes, then discovered 14 songbirds strapped to his legs. The few survivors are on display at the San Diego Zoo.

Backseat Parrots
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A hidden compartment within a car seat was found to contain an illegal shipment of half-moon conures, a type of parrot from Mexico and Central America. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials seized 120 of these birds at the California-Mexico border recently, showing that not all illegal wildlife products are smuggled through mail or air travel.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A hidden compartment within a car seat was found to contain an illegal shipment of half-moon conures, a type of parrot from Mexico and Central America. Fish and Wildlife officials seized 120 of these birds at the California-Mexico border recently, showing that not all illegal wildlife products are smuggled through mail or air travel.

Coral Contraband
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Instead of clothing, suitcases confiscated at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport were filled with coral. The passenger lacked proper permits to import the coral, which is actually made up of tiny animals called coral polyps, the harvesting of which can damage coral reefs.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Instead of clothing, suitcases confiscated at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport were filled with coral. The passenger lacked proper permits to import the coral, which is actually made up of tiny animals called coral polyps, the harvesting of which can damage coral reefs.

Hidden Elephant Tusks
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Part of a shipment from Nigeria to Los Angeles, this colorful chair is actually a vehicle for smuggling whole elephant tusks. After a routine X-ray revealed unusually shaped, dense areas inside the chair, customs officers watched for other shipments from the same shipper, which led to the seizure of more than 250 pounds of raw and worked ivory. The discoveries led to the breakup of one of the largest ivory smuggling rings on the West Coast.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Part of a shipment from Nigeria to Los Angeles, this colorful chair is actually a vehicle for smuggling whole elephant tusks. After an X-ray revealed unusually shaped, dense areas inside the chair, customs officers watched for other shipments from the same shipper, which led to the seizure of more than 250 pounds of raw and worked ivory. The discoveries led to the breakup of one of the largest ivory smuggling rings on the West Coast.

Operation Scratch-Off
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Dubbed “Operation Scratch-Off,” an initiative by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers uncovered illegal African ivory smuggling by scratching off coatings designed to make items appear as if they were made of clay, stone or wood. The illegal trafficking was traced to a group of six individuals, largely operating out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Dubbed “Operation Scratch-Off,” an initiative by Fish and Wildlife officers uncovered illegal African ivory smuggling by scratching off coatings designed to make items appear as if they were made of clay, stone or wood. The illegal trafficking was traced to six people, largely operating out of Kennedy International.

Bad Medicine
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Brightly colored boxes hold traditional Asian medicinal products made from protected and endangered species, such as rhino horn, tiger bone, bear gallbladder – all products U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials commonly find. This suitcase was seized from a passenger at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. Importation of products containing endangered species is usually illegal.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Brightly colored boxes hold traditional Asian medicinal products made from protected and endangered species, such as rhino horn, tiger bone, bear gallbladder — all products that Fish and Wildlife officials commonly find. This suitcase was seized from a passenger at Hartsfield International. Importation of products containing endangered species is usually illegal.

Rounding Up Seahorses
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Hidden inside a vehicle crossing the border from Mexico was a bag full of dried seahorses, which are used in traditional medicines and collected as curiosities. Seahorses are used in folk remedies to treat asthma, incontinence and impotence, according to Project Seahorse. Although seahorses are common in the aquarium trade, permits are required to protect overharvesting.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hidden inside a vehicle crossing the border from Mexico was a bag full of dried seahorses, which are used in traditional medicines and collected as curiosities. Seahorses are used in folk remedies to treat asthma, incontinence and impotence, according to Project Seahorse. Although seahorses are common in the aquarium trade, permits are required to protect overharvesting.

Egg Surprise
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A passenger’s luggage at Miami International Airport contained plastic Easter eggs that contained live Cuban pigeon eggs. Although pigeons are commonly found in many U.S. cities, these pigeons were prized for their speed and destined to be part of a racing pigeon community. The smugglers were caught trying to sell 72 illegal eggs through online chat rooms and a Miami pet store they own. While the pigeons are not endangered, the smugglers face prison and fines because they lacked proper permits.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A passenger’s luggage at Miami International contained plastic Easter eggs with live Cuban pigeon eggs. Although pigeons are commonly found in many U.S. cities, these pigeons were prized for their speed and destined to be part of a racing pigeon community. The smugglers were caught trying to sell 72 illegal eggs through online chat rooms and a Miami pet store they own. While the pigeons are not endangered, the smugglers face prison and fines because they lacked proper permits.

Mystery Meat
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This shipment of brown cardboard boxes was seized at JFK International Airport because it contained bushmeat that lacked proper documentation. Importation of bushmeat, which can come from a variety of wild land animals killed in tropical regions of the world, is generally prohibited. Besides harming endangered animal populations, bushmeat can carry dangerous pathogens, such as herpes, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This shipment of brown cardboard boxes was seized at JFK International because it contained bushmeat that lacked proper documentation. Importation of bushmeat, which can come from a variety of wild land animals killed in tropical regions, is generally prohibited. Besides harming endangered animal populations, bushmeat can carry dangerous pathogens, such as herpes, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Endangered Conch
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This large shipment of queen conch shells was seized in San Diego because it lacked proper permits. Removal of queen conch shells from their natural habitat has put the species in danger, leading the United States to limit the importation these marine animals, even as a souvenir.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This large shipment of queen conch shells was seized in San Diego because it lacked proper permits. Removal of queen conch shells from their natural habitat has put the species in danger, leading the United States to limit the importation these marine animals, even as a souvenir.

DangerousTrade: Exotic Animals
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