U.S. Smugglers Hot for Exotic Animal Parts

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.

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