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."
Santel said Congress has passed a measure authorizing the hiring of 252 agents to handle the illegal animal trade but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have all those officers assigned. Santel said even if all the agents were working on the illicit trade in animals, it still wouldn't be enough, especially since U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents handle other duties as well. Like other federal agents — and especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — they have to handle security issues at dams and nuclear plants. Many of the agents — Santel estimated 25 percent of the Fish and Wildlife staff — can be used on other assignments involving national security instead of animal trafficking.
Opportunities for Animal Smuggling Everywhere
It is difficult for investigators to gauge which states are the worst for illegal animal trafficking. Hoover said it depends largely on the kind of animals being smuggled or the kind of illegal trade. But officials have noticed significant activities and arrests in California, Florida, Texas and New York. Texas, Hoover said, would attract a lot of activity in the illegal animal trade because it has a lot of gaming ranches.
"States with more population centers are more likely to have illegal activity," Hoover said.
Santel says that no state is particularly notorious for illegal animal trade. Any place that has an opportunity to slip materials past a checkpoint or any place that has a wealthy resource of animals is a potential trouble spot and goldmine for animal traffickers.
"Wherever you have a large number of particular resources, that's an opportunity for violations," Santel said. "In a place like New York, which has a large population and airports like JFK [International] Airport, you could have an opportunity for smuggling a lot of animals through airport security. That opportunity probably wouldn't be seen in the airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But New York probably would not have the populations of mussels seen in the Mississippi River. … It really depends on what kind of opportunity a place presents."
Wanted — Preferably Dead
As the Lantz case shows, tigers have been popular among animal traffickers — and not just because of their fur and hides. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the hides of tigers, leopards and other large cats can be worth between $5,000 and $20,000 to collectors. Every part of the tiger is a potential trading item. Tiger penises, investigators said, have been used for aphrodisiacs, soups and traditional Chinese medicine. Tiger bones have been used in remedies for arthritis and rheumatism.
"With tigers, no part of the animal, nothing gets wasted in this type of trade," said Scott Flaherty, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "When most people think of tigers, they think of the hide, the skin. But the gall bladders, the skulls, teeth … there's a market for every part of the tiger."
Flaherty said tigers are appealing to animal traffickers because they breed well in captivity but are very expensive to take care of. They eat a lot, grow up fast, and need a lot of space to roam.
"With bengals and white tigers, they're just worth more dead than alive in this market," Flaherty said. "Most of the cats are domestic-bred and that's what part of the problem is. There's a large population of the tigers bred in captivity. The cats breed very easily in captivity. What happens is at zoos, everybody wants to see the tiger cubs … they're cute to look at."
"But these kittens grow up, and the animals are funneled into the private sector — private game parks and roadside zoos operated by private owners and they may not be as scrupulous as you'd want," Flaherty continued. "And the temptation to profit from the trade of these cats because of their worth would exist."
But any animal can become a popular smuggling target at any given time, and they don't have to be endangered. Officials from TRAFFIC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say trade of live reptiles, live birds — particularly parrots — caviar, mussels and all sorts of other animals and parts for traditional cultural medicine have been prevalent in recent years.
Sometimes, investigators say, certain exotic animals are seen frequently in movies and on television and will suddenly be targeted by traffickers. The animal's endangerment, its rarity, is a factor in its popularity in the animal trafficking circuit, but it is not the only factor.
"It all depends on what's hot at the moment … the culture, the movies, money, [what is seen on] television. … Right now, I've been dealing with the illegal trade of caviar," Santel said. "Things don't have to be endangered to be exploited. Not all kinds of mussels are endangered. But when the price of something becomes very high and its population is pressured, it drives people across state lines because of the value and the money."
Creative and Evolving Smuggling Methods
Investigators say all kinds of methods can be used to smuggle animals — from the mail and people declaring the package is something other than it is, to the use of the Internet to set up orders and arrangements, to people wearing bird eggs as necklaces to get across borders.
"Certainly, there's been a growing amount of trade in wildlife on the Internet. It's an excellent medium for trading, legal and otherwise," Hoover said."It's one more mechanism for reaching out to people and [reaching out to them] anonymously. EBay's had a number of instances of illegal trafficking, but at the same point in time it has been good at removing illegal traders from their site once it's been brought to their attention."
While officials are aware of the different methods used by smugglers, investigators say there must be more officers and safeguards at the borders — at state lines, mail terminals, airport checkpoints — to combat the growing animal trafficking problem.
"If the trafficking is not dealt with at the border, then there's very little chance that it will be detected within the state," Hoover said. "There will be very little that can be done. As far as what can be done, I would say there probably needs to be a greater effort at the federal level.
‘Following a Rabbit …’
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say Todd and Vicki Lantz are negotiating a plea bargain with federal prosecutors. Flaherty refused to comment further on the negotiations or the terms of the possible plea bargain. The Lantzes were arrested last November after an 18-month investigation, and Flaherty said officials are continuing their probe and hope to make more arrests.
"It was like following a rabbit down a hole [for investigators]. … The investigation led them to different states and different people who were involved in different aspects of the trade," Flaherty said. "The agents were exposed to a lot more than what the indictments served indicated."
Wilmoth is expected to face a separate trial in federal court. If convicted, the Lantzes face up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine per count.