BALTIMORE – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors knew something was up when they found several empty containers in an airline passenger’s suitcase. So they asked the Swedish traveler to step into their office.
The inspectors found what they were looking for in the man’s carry-on bag: geckos. It was the dozen or so chameleons – that leapt out of the man’s jacket pockets and scrambled across the floor – that surprised them.
The man hadn’t bothered to obtain the proper permit or declaration to take the reptiles out of the country. That was grounds for arrest.
“He wasn’t a hardened criminal. He just didn’t want to deal with the paperwork and ended up going to jail,” said Cathy Cockey, an inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
From lizards and leopards to coral and crocodiles, Cockey and another inspector, Rick Potvin, hunt down illegal wildlife passing through BWI, Dulles Airport and the Port of Baltimore. And although their beat isn’t the busiest in the nation, it could be on the upswing. They believe the volume of imports and exports will more than triple if the Baltimore port wins the contract to become one of the main seaports along the East Coast.
The reason? Money. The United States is the largest consumer of wildlife and wildlife products, adding to a global wildlife import and export industry worth more than $10 billion a year, officials say. Illegal trade–items that are never discovered or declared–is worth another $2 billion to $3 billion, according to Jinette Hemley, vice president for species conservation at the World Wildlife Fund.
Federal law prohibits the killing, importation or exportation of certain plants and animals. Other laws require permits for importing and exporting certain animals and animal products — a rule that often gives travelers a headache.
The Wild Bird Conservation Act, for example, has created a hassle for pet bird owners, whose Amazon parrots or greenwing macaws still must have the proper documents when they travel.
“If there’s no permit, the bird goes bye-bye,” Cockey said. But she tries to give people the benefit of the doubt.
“We’re not jackbooted thugs,” she said. “We try to be nice guys and work with you.”
Cockey has even been known to return the occasional snakeskin purse or trinket to unknowing smugglers if it looks like they’ve used the items.
But the agency wasn’t so nice to a would-be smuggler from South America who had stuffed about 200 turtle hatchlings and tortoises in a suitcase in hopes of selling them here. That landed the man in a Baltimore jail.
Each turtle could have fetched up to $800, Cockey said.
“A lot of times they think the risk is worth it,” she said.
The reptiles were sick and dehydrated upon their arrival to Baltimore, but only a few died. The hatchlings went to the Baltimore Zoo and Towson State University.
Wildlife is rarely returned to its country of origin for fear of introducing diseases, Cockey said.
Inspectors don’t just track down live animals.
“The bug trade is big,” Cockey said. Last year, Fish and Wildlife intercepted more than 40 boxes containing framed and mounted butterflies sent from Peru without permits.
Suntan lotion containing turtle oil, withered elephant tails, carved ivory, leopard claws, a shellacked crocodile head ashtray, speckled seashells and tortoise shell spurs for cockfighting are just a few examples of the contraband seized.
Some passengers demand their goods back, often because the items are talismans, believed to bring good luck.
A cheetah skin, which had been given to a passenger for good luck upon his marriage in Africa, was the root of one dispute.
“He said if I didn’t return it, I’d be dooming his marriage to fail,” Cockey said. But products from the spotted and striped cats are prohibited, and Cockey took it.
Another passenger lost a similar battle when Cockey seized a gorilla hand with hot pink fingernails thought to bring good fortune. Gorillas are endangered, so the hand’s owner was out of luck.
Checking biological specimens is the bulk of Cockey’s work. Monkey tissue and blood samples comprise about 70 percent of the wildlife traffic Cockey sees. Often transported in coolers, hospitals around the world use the samples, which also must have proper documents, to test for diseases and viruses.
BWI is the eighth busiest of the nation’s 13 wildlife inspection ports. BWI inspectors processed 3,300 imports and exports last year, and had 30 seizures.
Inspectors at Kennedy Airport in New York processed 20,000 to 25,000 entries, and seized 250 of them, according to Paul Cerniglia, supervisory Fish and Wildlife inspector in New York.
But if Baltimore wins a 25-year lease to move cargo shipped by Maersk and Sea-Land Service Inc. through its port – business it’s competing for – Fish and Wildlife predicts the volume of wildlife trafficking in the area will increase. The Baltimore port makes up about a quarter of the total wildlife traffic through this region.
The agency has already begun to prepare for a higher case Load. Five new inspectors could be added if the Baltimore deal goes through, Cockey said.