Nation & World

August 1, 2014

At Miami International Airport, it’s a struggle to stop the wildlife smugglers

At Miami International Airport — the nation’s top spot for wildlife shipments — federal inspectors struggle to stem the tide of illegal traffic

Sylvia Gaudio held up a belt with three prescription bottles punched with holes attached to an elastic strap.

“Sometimes people try to hide live birds inside this kind of thing under their clothes and go through security,” said Gaudio, a wildlife inspector at Miami International Airport for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Next, she pulled the crumpled gold and black pelt of a South American jaguar out of a purple silk pillow, where a not-so-savvy traveler had tried to hide the rare and valuable skin from security.

These confiscated curiosities — along with a carved ivory tusk from Africa, sea turtle shell from Nicaragua and leathery skin of a caiman alligator — are just a few of the illegal wildlife products stored in the office of David Pharo, resident agent in charge of law enforcement for the federal agency in South Florida.

From shipments with bogus permits destined for zoos and circuses to commercial boxes of rare, protected creatures hidden in plain sight with similar-looking species, Pharo and his team encounter the whole spectrum of wildlife smuggling at MIA ground zero for an illicit multibillion industry in the United States.

The FWS team of nine inspectors makes a steady stream of busts at MIA — which ranks No. 1 in the U.S. for the number of wildlife shipments — but Pharo says the agency doesn’t have anywhere near enough staff to cover the vast volume of exotic animals, living and dead, shipped through the bustling airport everyday.

“We’re overwhelmed,” Pharo said.

Pharo and his team inspect animal shipments in an effort to control illegal wildlife trafficking that has led to the proliferation of invasive species like the Burmese python across Florida and the U.S. and to the decline of many animal populations in their native lands.

In 2013, importers at the airport declared 11,000 international shipments of live wildlife — and there’s no way to accurately estimate undeclared smuggling.

Inspectors can examine only about 20 percent of the flow, Pharo said — in part because so many shipments they do look at wind up holding something illegal, like the 200 flying squirrels recently recovered.

“One out of every three inspections resulted in law enforcement,” Pharo said. “That’s a really high number.”

To speed the process, the service last year added a four-legged agent — a trained dog that can sniff out highly valuable and illegal products like ivory, rhino horn, sea turtle shells and dried seahorses.

The most recent federal case resulting from an inspection involved Oscar Humberto Cordova Cobian, a commercial dealer in coral and marine life.

Federal prosecutors say Cordova Cobian, who is originally from Venezuela, illegally exported live corals and other marine life from Miami to Caracas at least five times since January before he was detained in May. Agents found 136 marine specimens, including live corals and clams, tucked into his checked luggage.

After pleading guilty to shipping wildlife with a permit, Cordova Cobian received a sentence of two years of probation and $100 in criminal fines.

Thomas Watts Fitzgerald, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said Cordova Cobian represents the type of trafficker agents target because of the potential damage they can cause.

“This guy is a commercial dealer so he’s going to have a bigger impact than the average,” Watts Fitzgerald said.

Terrence O’Sullivan, Cordova Cobian’s attorney, called the case little more than a paperwork problem. He said his client simply failed to obtain proper permits and was not illegally harvesting marine life from the ocean.

“You or I could go to the same pet store and buy the same fish, but we couldn’t export them without a permit,” O’Sullivan said.

Watts Fitzgerald said that any claim to ignorance about a protected species doesn’t stand up.

“It’s almost incredible to believe that someone who is a marine life enthusiast like [Cordova Cobian] wasn’t aware of the worldwide restrictions on corals,” Watts Fitzgerald said.

According to Pharo, his team currently deals with more illegal marine life shipments than any other kind of wildlife.

The coral case also is an example of the leading wildlife trafficking crime — failure to obtain permits. Getting paperwork to legally trade in many species can be complicated and expensive because of widely varying international laws and procedures.

But federal authorities say permits are more than just paperwork. They’re a safeguard to ensure the survival of the rarest species, whose value often climbs as their numbers dwindle. That’s why trade in so many endangered species is banned.

“Commercial activity can have a large impact on wildlife, that’s why permits are necessary” Pharo said. “So we can keep track of the numbers and the market so a species doesn’t go extinct.”

Along with airport inspections, the service also mounts long-term large-scale probes — but there also aren’t a lot of agents available for that. Pharo and just three other federal wildlife agents operate in Broward, Miami-Dade, West Palm Beach, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, often working undercover.

Last year, Pharo’s office uncovered several conspiracies involving aquariums in other states like Idaho and Michigan that were illegally harvesting marine life from the Keys and then ferrying them back north. Pharo said the cases highlight how Miami so often figures in the smuggling trade, from cocaine to corals.

“There always seems to be a Miami connection somewhere along the way,” Pharo said.

Follow @janeyfugate on Twitter.

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