Animal CSI: Lab Targets Illegal Species Traffic

Animal CSI: Lab Targets Illegal Species Traffic

Rare and beautiful animals such as the clouded leopard or douc langur monkey spend their lives in the jungles of southeast Asia.

In death, they might end up in, of all places, an open U.S. market catering to southeast Asian immigrants. At one such market in Minnesota, in the shadow of the state capitol, federal agents recently uncovered a tiny slice of a multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise that is rarely seen.

"Slow loris is a primate," said federal agent Sheila O'Connor, explaining photos of evidence confiscated from the market. "These are dholes, dhole hide. These are tapir feet. [A dhole is a member of the dog family; the tapir is an endangered relative of the rhino]. These are douc langur parts. These are hands and feet both."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents say illegal trafficking in wildlife is the No. 1 threat of extinction for animals ranging from elephants to tigers.

Minneapolis airport inspector Linda Benson ran smack into the strange underworld during a routine check of passengers disembarking from a flight from Laos.

"When we found the primate and the elephant skin and the elephant teeth, um, you know, we knew we were on to something," Benson said.

The passenger carrying the illegal goods hardly looked like a top predator in the black-market world of animal trafficking, Benson said. She was an elderly Laotian woman by the name of Pa Lor.

But her luggage told another story. She was carrying a ghoulish collection -- more than a thousand claws, teeth and skins.

"Usually when we work passengers, we'll find maybe one item they might be bringing in, one item," said Benson. "With her it was such a large quantity, and then when we started picking out the primate skins and the serow horn. It was just amazing."

The serow is a small hoofed animal endemic to Taiwan.

Inspector Benson called federal agent O'Connor.

They tracked the woman to a stall in the market and sent a Laotian-speaking agent undercover with a camera.

What he found, they say, was a marketplace for rare animal parts that were smuggled into the United States to be used for everything from medicine to sending a person bad luck.

The agent discovered thousands of pieces -- many from endangered species.

There was a 14-pound elephant tooth for sale. The entire face of a rare primate was being offered for thousands of dollars.

As we went in and looked at some other things we learned what some of the products were purported to be. One was serow blood in little jars. Dried, it looked like coffee grounds with red dye in it.

"It's used medicinally," said O'Connor.

Nation's Only Wildlife Forensics Lab

In fact, traditional medicines drive the demand for many endangered animals on the black market.

"We're interested in knowing if any of these products might be made with protected wildlife," said O'Connor.

But how would one know? From the packaging, it seems impossible to tell.

"It's pretty difficult when it's packaged like this," said O'Connor.

Tracing an endangered animal from a bottle of medicine -- or even the skin used to make a woman's purse or pair of boots -- is extraordinarily complex.

But that is exactly what agents do every day at the nation's only wildlife forensics lab. It is in Ashland, Ore.

"I have a skin with no head and the feet are turned inside and dried, so I have to come up with what this was," said lab analyst Bonnie Yates. "No tail," she observed.

Yates ID'd a small clawed Asian otter.

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