U.S. Smugglers Hot for Exotic Animal Parts

"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.

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