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A Talk on the Wild Side.

The Reptile Black Market is Still Around

   cobra in acanThree cobras were found in chip cans. Photo by USFWS


Last month, FWS special agents arrested a California man on federal smuggling charges after U.S. Customs and Border Protection discovered a package that contained three live king cobras hidden in potato chip canisters. The shipment, which came from Hong Kong, also had three albino Chinese soft-shelled turtles. That same day, the man shipped a package from the United States to Hong Kong containing desert box turtles, three-toed box turtles and ornate box turtles – all protected species. This package was seized by FWS wildlife inspectors. Finally, while searching the man’s home, in the children’s bedroom, agents found more protected turtles and a baby Morelet’s crocodile.


This made the news, of course, how could it not? King Cobras In A Can.

And it made one of our retirees recall a sting operation the Fish and Wildlife Service ran in 1980-81 to put a dent in the black market for reptiles. At the time, it was called the largest wildlife law enforcement investigation

   Atlanta Wildlife ExchangeA gila monster was among the animals seized in the '81 sting. Photo by Alan Levitt/USFWS


According to a story in the Endangered Species Technical Bulletin in August 1981, FWS agents believed a major investigation was needed to investigate and infiltrate the black market trade of reptiles.


   Atlanta Wildlife ExchangeThe Atlanta Wildlife Exchange did brisk business. Photo by Alan Levitt/USFWS


The Atlanta Wildlife Exchange, as the sting’s storefront was called, was “inconspicuously located in a suburban Atlanta industrial park.”


The wholesale business bought and sold almost 10,000 animals that had been caught in the wild illegally. About 1,000 were listed as endangered or threatened by the federal government or states.


Among the people doing business at the exchange were zoo employees, police officers, a sheriff, teachers, an attorney, bankers, a mortician, businessmen, and officials and employees in the wild animal trade.


Many exchange customers – 175 in all – were put under investigation, and about 30 were charged.


One news release notes that the agents got special training in case they had to deal with venomous species. It adds:


   Atlanta Wildlife ExchangeThe reptiles traded included venomous snakes (copperheads, water moccasins and 15 species of rattlesnakes). Photo by Alan Levitt/USFWS


All of this came in handy during the searches when agents did in fact find themselves face to face with scores of rattlesnakes; a cobra; saw-scaled vipers, known for their irritable disposition and ability to strike rapidly; huge Indian pythons; and many other snakes that were less intimidating but nonetheless capable of delivering a painful bite.


"Agents who are analyzing evidence obtained during this case believe the investigation has broken up a major portion of the black market in protected American reptiles," the release quotes F. Eugene Hester, acting deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Unfortunately, it didn’t stay broken up.


A news release from a 2016 meeting on international wildlife trade, “Global Protections Achieved for Imperiled Reptiles,” explains some of the reasons behind current high demand for turtles.


Freshwater turtles and tortoises are collected, traded and utilized in overwhelming numbers principally to fill demand from Asia where they are prized for food and in traditional medicine. A growing pet trade also impacts a number of these threatened species. The global commerce in turtles in the last 20-plus years has followed a well-known pattern in international wildlife trade: once a species is depleted or regulated, the trade shifts to other species that are not as threatened or are less regulated. With continued human-driven development and population growth, turtle populations around the world also face pressure from habitat degradation and loss.


Alligator Snapping TurtleThe alligator snapping turtle is the one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world and can live up to 100 years in the wild. Photo by Garry Tucker/USFWS


In fact, three men just pleaded guilty in a conspiracy to traffick in alligator snapping turtles, which are protected. They were selling them in Louisiana, showing that wildlife trafficking is not solely a problem of other countries.


A story on National Geographic’s website from earlier this year tells how monitor lizards in India, which protects them, are hunted for meat, skin and lately, genitalia.


Our Office of Law Enforcement warns travelers:


[Reptiles] supply leather for shoes, wallets, handbags and watchbands. Many manufacturers work with skins from sustainably harvested reptiles. But some snake, turtle, tortoise, crocodilian and lizard species are protected and may be subject to trade restrictions. Check U.S. and country laws before buying reptiles or reptile products overseas or taking these items with you when you travel outside the United States.


Despite grim statistics on wildlife trafficking, one of the most optimistic takeaways from these two stories is that whether in 1981 or 36 years later, dedicated men and women are working around the clock, often in dangerous situations, to win the battle against the illegal wildlife trade.


How you can help


Matt Trott, External Affairs, Headquarters


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