Animal Genocide, Mob Style

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In four years of undercover work, Steven Galster has been all over the world, from the black markets of Zimbabwe to the back alleys of Moscow. Most of the time, he has felt reasonably safe -- but not always. "I had one meeting with a Russian gang that had been burned before," he says, "and I had a funny feeling about it. I was wired up and wearing a hidden camera, but I decided to take off the recorder and hide it in my gym bag. They frisked me, but it was O.K." It might have easily gone otherwise: the people he hung out with were frequently armed and very dangerous, as hoods involved in weapons dealing, gambling, drug smuggling, money laundering and prostitution usually are.

Galster, however, wasn't especially interested in any of those unsavory activities. As a co-director of the San Francisco -- based Endangered Species Project, he goes after the illicit trade in wildlife. And there is no shortage of work. Unsanctioned traffic in animals and animal parts -- birds of prey, tiger skins, tiger bones and bear gallbladders out of Russia; rhino horns and elephant ivory from Africa; whale meat into Japan; rare birds and snakes from South America -- has more than doubled in value since 1989, generating an estimated $6 billion in annual revenues. According to Interpol, the international police agency, wildlife trafficking is now the second largest form of black-market commerce, behind drug smuggling and ahead of arms dealing.

Plenty of laws and international agreements forbid such trade, but enforcement ranges from spotty to nonexistent. That's why delegates to this week's 126-nation biennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Fort Lauderdale will be considering a proposal for a worldwide enforcement agency that would pool information from member countries and coordinate prosecution efforts.

But as a report being issued this week by Galster's group makes disturbingly clear, such an agency could find itself overwhelmed as soon as it is created. The reason: not only have small-time wildlife smugglers become increasingly organized and professional, but -- more ominously -- traditional organized- crime operations have finally awakened to the huge profit potential of wildlife smuggling.

In Japan, for example, the 300 or so minke whales killed legally each year can't begin to satisfy the demand for whale meat, a delicacy that commands about $100 a plate. Customs officials frequently seize illegal shipments on the way into the country. But plenty slips through, and a recent study published in Science suggests that some of it comes from whales that can't be hunted legally. Investigators bought whale meat in retail markets all over ! Japan. Using DNA tests, researchers found that some of it came from fin whales, humpbacks and other protected species. "We were stunned to find humpback being sold in a Hiroshima supermarket," says Don White, president of Earthtrust, the Hawaii-based group that sponsored the study. "They've been protected since 1966."

Less than a week after the Japanese government first learned of the study last May, police busted a whale-meat smuggling operation in Nagasaki, arresting three men and seizing a Korean fishing vessel with 11 tons of undocumented whale meat aboard. It turned out to be run by the yakuza, Japan's organized-crime syndicate. Last week one of the gangsters involved was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

In South America drug cartels have long been involved in the animal trade, but until lately it was mostly a way to move their primary product. Agents have found cocaine in polar-bear skins and live boa constrictors, and heroin packed into a tiger rug's skull. "A few years ago, it was cement utility poles stuffed with cocaine," says Jorge Picon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's senior enforcement agent in Miami. "Now it's wildlife."

Picon and others say that the cartels are now getting into the wildlife trade for its own sake -- not surprising, considering that a single South American parrot, bought from a poacher for just a few dollars, can fetch a street price of as much as $40,000 in the U.S. or Europe. Animals are useful for money laundering as well. According to Picon's agency, smugglers frequently trade illegal drugs for endangered species, resulting in cashless transfers. And an official from Interpol has told TIME that the agency is tracking airplanes that fly into Leticia, a port in the Colombian Amazon, with cargoes of motorcycles and appliances, then fly out with animals obtained in the area. "We suspect," says the official, "that the outgoing planes are loaded with cocaine or coca paste along with animals."

It is in Russia, where Galster had his close call, that professional criminals have penetrated most deeply into the endangered-species business. Mafia groups have moved into Moscow's so-called Bird Market, where an enormous variety of exotic animals and endangered-species products changes hands. "There are birds from all over the world," says Galster, "as well as chimpanzees and lemurs." Customers can also place orders for wild ginseng, walrus ivory, tiger furs, sea otters and beluga whales. Some dealers even have ( price lists printed in English.

Supplying this bizarre bazaar, and the export market as well, is a nationwide network of loosely affiliated professional gangs, supplied by ruthless poachers. Using snowmobiles, helicopters, horses and dogs, the poachers have killed half the musk deer population in just three years and pushed the Siberian tiger to the brink of extinction. As few as 150 of the tigers are left.

These are not laid-back crooks. The Russian Environment Ministry's antipoaching unit set up a sting in Khabarovsk to trap a known mafia member involved in this network, but according to Galster the operation went bad. "When the agent went home and opened the kitchen door, his apartment blew up," he says. "His wife and child were killed, and he's still in the hospital." All told, says Deputy Environment Minister Amirkhan Amirkhanov, 24 members of the unit have been killed on duty since 1992. Both the antipoaching patrols and the customs department are severely understaffed, and Russia has just two investigators charged with making sure that exotic-animal imports and exports to conform to CITES rules.

The rest of the world isn't much better at enforcement. Many countries in South America and Asia are short on resources, and even in such wealthy nations as Japan and the U.S. authorities are overwhelmed. Picon points out that he has only five inspectors in Miami -- enough to examine 3% of wildlife shipments for contraband.

The CITES conference has dozens of items on its agenda this week, most of them concerned with adopting new regulations or modifying existing ones. Unless the member nations can find a way to make the rules stick, though, they may find that the animals they're trying to protect no longer exist.