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Lucrative Illegal Animal Trade Thrives In Southern California

Exotic animal trafficking is big business, and Southern California is a hub.

In March, Cheng Zhuo Liu of Chula Vista, Calif., pleaded guilty to smuggling frozen sea cucumbers over the Mexico border. The 100 pounds of sea cucumbers, worth up to $10,000, were found in the spare tire compartment of Liu's Hyundai.

Fish and Wildlife Service agent Erin Dean says there are many ways to traffic wildlife in Southern California. She says smuggling avenues include LAX, the sixth-busiest airport in the world; the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest port in the nation; and the Mexican border.

"Currently we have 207 special agents and 126 wildlife inspectors around the country. So we're a very small law enforcement agency with a big job," she says.

It's a job that requires help from U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the ports of entry.

Michael Ferguson is on the front lines, inspecting plants, food and animals that come through LAX. He says he's seen just about everything.

For instance, in 2009, they detained a passenger flying in from Vietnam.

"Everything looked OK," Ferguson says. "But then, when they sat there and looked at his shoes, there were bird droppings on the top of his shoes."

When they pulled up the legs of his pants, they discovered 14 songbirds. The birds had been taped to his legs the entire flight.

"If it walks, crawls, swims, flies — somebody eats it, collects it, wears it or wants to," says Joseph Johns, a federal prosecutor of environmental crimes.

He says the black market for exotic animals is a multibillion-dollar industry. The market for illegal wildlife falls right behind drug and weapons smuggling, he says, in the U.S. and globally.

"You know, one of the more interesting cases we had in the office recently involves a TV personality by the name of Donald Schultz," Johns says.

One of two live desert monitor lizards that Donald Schultz, former Animal Planet host, sold to an undercover agent.
/ AP
One of two live desert monitor lizards that Donald Schultz, former Animal Planet host, sold to an undercover agent.

Schultz, the former host of Wild Recon on Animal Planet, was found guilty of selling two endangered desert monitor lizards to an undercover agent for $2,500.

Ian Recchio, curator at the Los Angeles Zoo, identified them. When these sorts of animals turn up, Recchio is the guy they call.

"You don't know what's maybe broken loose. You never know what you're going to get," he says.

A couple years ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service intercepted a stuffed animal with something inside: paper bindles filled with scorpions. Recchio says the scorpions were arranged "very neatly, with their legs compressed and their tail compressed."

He carefully unpacked them with a scorpion expert from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The scientist told Recchio there was a scale of scorpion toxicity that ranged from 1 to 4. This type of scorpion, he said, was a 5. They were some of the most deadly scorpions in the world, shipped from Egypt through regular mail.

Back at LAX, Michael Ferguson says over the past few years he's seen fewer live animals and more animal parts coming through the X-ray. "Elephant skin, elephant toenails," he says. One man had a giant tusk in a box of furniture.

Ferguson says it all comes down to keeping up with the latest smuggling tactics — like two years ago in Delhi's airport in India when three smugglers hid tiny lorises in their underwear.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.