Office of Law Enforcement
Pacific Region



February 2011

Wildlife Inspectors

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement has four main groups of personnel that work together to fight wildlife crime.  There are the special agents, the wildlife inspectors, the forensic scientists and the administrative support staff.  These four groups work hand in hand to detect, investigate and help catch criminals dealing in illegal wildlife items.  Many people don’t know what these jobs entail and today the focus will be on the wildlife inspectors.

Wildlife trade is an important legal trade.  Wildlife inspectors help facilitate legal trade thus ensuring commodities coming into the U.S. meet regulations and make it to their final destinations. 


Tape placed on boxes or packages inspected by Wildlife Inspectors
Tape placed on boxes or packages that have been inspected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife inspectors.  Photo credit:  USFWS

When inspecting wildlife, inspectors look to see that the animals are being transported humanely. They also make sure paperwork required to import wildlife items is filled out properly as sometimes, the wildlife is able to come into the U.S. but must have paperwork or permits, depending on the species or the amount of wildlife being shipped.

Sport Hunted Trophy Shipment from Africa
A shipment of sport hunted trophies from a safari trip to Africa inspected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife inspectors.  Photo credit: USFWS


Unfortunately, wildlife inspectors must also watch out for wildlife smuggling.  Many criminals smuggle illegal wildlife products into and out of the U.S. to sell on the black market for a considerable profit.  It is a lucrative business for criminal entities because they can sometimes make as much profit with wildlife as they can by committing other crimes and if they get caught, the penalties are usually less stringent.  In general, the fines they face are less and the prison sentences are shorter.

Wildlife inspectors deal with commercial and non-commercial shipments as well as international travelers and their luggage.  Inspectors are always on the move. 

Their job takes them to airports, ocean ports, international mail facilities, and other locations where large commercial shipments arrive in and depart from the U.S.  Wildlife inspectors conduct random inspections of shipments and inspect shipments they have received tips about.  The inspectors also check shipments with paperwork declaring the contents to contain wildlife and ensure the box contains the documented wildlife items because sometimes shippers will package illegal wildlife items in shipments and pass them off as legal items in the documentation. 

Another component in the inspector job is checking passenger luggage.  Inspectors screen international passenger luggage from private and commercial airline passengers for wildlife and wildlife products when they are coming back into the United States and are going through customs.

Wildlife inspectors must be familiar with many laws that regulate species import and export.  For example, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Lacey Act relating to injurious species and wildlife protected under the laws of other countries, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Each of these laws and their implementing regulations contain very specific information about whether a species can be imported or exported and how that can be achieved.

Some of these regulations contain lists of wildlife species that cannot be traded and the wildlife inspectors must know how all these laws work and be able to accurately identify wildlife and wildlife products.  For example, there are over 100 species of coral that a wildlife inspector must be able to identify, they must learn to tell captive bred reptiles from wild caught reptiles, they must be able to tell the species of a zebra from the pattern of its stripes, just to name a few.   There are many times when a wildlife product has been altered to the point that identifying it is extremely difficult.  For example, certain medicines contain powdered parts of an endangered species such as rhino or tiger.  Sometimes food can contain parts of regulated species such as shark or sturgeon.  Jewelry, instruments, scarves, artwork, clothing, food, medicine and countless other things can contain illegal wildlife products.

Wildlife inspectors must also have a broad understanding of other federal agencies’ missions as some of the products they come across may violate laws enforced by another agency. 


Imported Zebra Skin
An imported zebra skin is checked to make sure it is the species stated in its paperwork. The skin above is legal to import with the correct paperwork.  Photo credit: USFWS

Assorted Caviar Tins
Assorted caviar tins containing roe from the threatened beluga sturgeon (which cannot be imported into the U.S.) and other species that require permits to move in trade. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Forensic Laboratory.

For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture may need to be informed if wildlife inspectors find invasive species that have the potential to populate, spread and ruin crops. Or the Food and Drug Administration may be interested in some of the food products containing wildlife that inspectors may come across to check if it those products are up to the standards required for sale in the U.S. 

Wildlife inspectors are on the front lines of facilitating wildlife trade and catching wildlife criminals.  They must have: knowledge of wildlife laws, lots of energy, and a passion for wildlife.
To find out about wildlife inspector job opportunities within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, click here.

To contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about this piece or to report a violation you have witnessed, please go to and click on the “contact us” link at the top of the page.


Last updated: December 3, 2013

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