U.S. Smugglers Hot for Exotic Animal Parts

Tigers are among the most fearsome predators in the wild. They are also among the most lucrative commodities for even greater predators — traffickers in the worldwide trade in endangered and exotic animal parts.

Two of those alleged traffickers, Todd and Vicki Lantz, of Missouri, are set to go on trial today in a case that sheds light on the multi-billion-dollar business of selling rare, beautiful animals.

The Lantzes are accused in an indictment filed in Missouri federal court of buying four adult tigers in 1998 from Freddy Wilmoth, the operator of Wild Wilderness Safari, a privately run drive-thru park that features exotic animals in Gentry, Ark.

Todd Lantz, the indictment alleges, dropped the tigers off at a ranch in Cape Girardeau, Mo., knowing that they would be slaughtered then sent on to someone else in Illinois, to be distributed further. His wife Vicki allegedly accepted $4,000 for the domestically bred tigers and then prepared a federal form that indicated that the big cats had been donated. Under the federal Lacey Act, it is not illegal to own exotic or endangered animals, but it is to sell them or their body parts for profit. Live endangered animals, however, can be donated.

Tigers are just one species among the many that animal smugglers targeted in business that has been booming in recent years. There are no statistics on the prevalence of illegal animal trade and smuggling, but officials from the World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate sales generated from smuggling exotic animals or animal parts are in the billions, just behind illegal drug and firearm sales.

And federal investigators find themselves undermanned in their efforts to combat a problem they believe is only escalating.

"We know that in global legal trade, it measures in the tens of billions of dollars worldwide. And the U.S. is one of the biggest consumers, making up 30 percent of global trading," said Craig Hoover, deputy director of TRAFFIC, which monitors wildlife trading for World Wildlife Fund. "We know illegal animal trade is a multi-billion industry annually and the United States is a significant player in that problem."

Undermanned and Overwhelmed

Hoover said one of the problems federal officials have had in thwarting animal trafficking is a lack of manpower. Between 200 and 300 special agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work undercover on special missions throughout the United States. Only 90 agents cover state borders — not enough, officials say, when traffickers are using innovative ways to smuggle animals and are constantly thinking of new methods.

"At any given moment we will not have 200 federal agents covering the entire United States," said Tim Santel, resident special agent for Illinois and Indiana. "In some states we have no officers watching out for trade; in other states we may have just one officer. I doubt that any officer would disagree with me when I say we do not have enough officers to take on the job. But we do the best we can with as few people as we have, and we do a pretty good job."

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