Of Caimans, Caviar, and Consignments

Posted by: Apoorva Joshi on

Tiger Cub confiscated at the Port of Miami

Bowfin and Paddlefin caviar, komodo dragons or water monitors, Darwin's finches or hummingbirds, spitting cobras or taipans, tree frogs or gliding frogs, the US Fish and Wildlife Service's wildlife inspectors need to literally, know it all.

Animals, both wild and domestic, have played a major role in the lives of humans ever since the presence of mankind on earth, but their roles have changed with time. Once co-inhabitants of the planet, today they are shipped across the globe in eye-popping numbers and with regularity that would floor even the most knowledgeable trader.

Importers and exporters of shipments are legally required to declare to the concerned authority, in this case, the FWS, which animal/s they are transporting, how many individuals there are, where they are coming from, where they're being sent, whether they were collected from the wild, what their wholesale price is, and what they cost per piece. The age of animals, temperature conditions, ventilation and feeding of animals are also regulated by the FWS. One of the underlying common requirements is that all animals are humanely shipped.

Three important prongs of this process are the IATA regulations [International Air Transport Association], CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species], and state laws. The IATA regulations state packaging guidelines for transportation of live animals and other related animal cargo. CITES species are high priority species that have to be looked at with additional care, the shipments are inspected with extreme care, and facts and declarations are double checked. State laws basically decide what applies when. They vary according to each individual state's standards. California, for example, heavily restricts shipments of venomous animals while Florida, is the country's largest port dealing with live animal shipments, including large numbers of venomous animals. Two hours prior to the aircraft's landing, notifications, IDs, and related papers are dispatched to the FWS office and an inspection is scheduled.

The Miami Fish and Wildlife Service office has a working staff of eight or nine of which, six employees deal with shipments of live animals. The FWS deals with 30 shipments a day and an average of 1000 every month. Nationwide protocol requires that when a shipment containing venomous animals comes in or is shipped out, at least two wildlife inspectors are required to be present for the inspection. The FWS is looking to push that number to three and hoping that not only will that make the inspection process more effective and timely, but it will also deter importers and exporters from violating guidelines and laws given that the shipment will be scrutinized more carefully with three officials around.

From mammals for medical research, to inmates for zoos, animals for travelling circuses, and all sorts of creatures that are set to enter the rapidly evolving pet trade, Miami is the country's leader in number of the shipments that transit through the port all year round.

Wildlife inspector Eva Lara, claims this is because of the favourable temperature in Miami. It is never too hot or too cold for shipments to enter and leave the port. The FWS charges $165 per shipment for non-CITES species and $239 per CITES species shipment. A shipment is the term used for an entire consignment, whether it is one box of 15 snakes or 200 boxes of 15 snakes each. Importers and exporters are required to have licenses for possession, transport and collection separately. Having a license to possess a particular animal does not guarantee the right to breed the species. Permits are an entirely different, yet extremely important aspect of the wildlife trade.

Competing with the FWS' inspection standards, are smugglers who have, in the past, gotten away with smuggling cocaine into countries by force-feeding it to snakes or stuffing it the teeth or skins of dead animals like caimans. Shipments labelled ‘Tropical Fish' have been found to contain undeclared venomous species like Blue-ringed octopuses which have no anti-venom and pose a huge risk to anyone handling a consignment full of fragile plastic bags that are meant for harmless fish.

"We also think that a lot of times when there is something that is illegal, they don't want us to see it, it makes a lot of sense to put it in with a cobra because you know, our lives are worth something too," says Lara. She says that the Miami Fire Rescue Department's venom response program has proved very helpful. "Some of the animals we do look at, do not have anti-venom so it's important to sometimes have them on site," says Lara explaining how it ensures safety to have an anti-venom bank available for emergencies.

This precaution is vital because of irresponsibly or intentionally packed shipments in which venomous and non-venomous animals are placed next to each other or in alternate layers which not only violates packaging laws, but also puts the inspectors at risk. The inspectors, for their part, use tubes and tongs to handle venomous snakes or larger reptiles like monitor lizards.

"There's a trend in dangerous species that we're finding," said Lara, while saying that although the regulations for packaging and dealing with venomous snakes are strict, the rules for other venomous animals like spiders or poison-arrow dart frogs, lion fish, and the like, are not as stringent. Carelessly packed Tarantulas can sometimes get loose in the box when the lid of a flimsy plastic container falls off.

Crocodiles and caimans are not far behind in the pet trade. "We deal a lot with caimans. People like to have their small little caimans. It's all for the pet trade," said Lara while citing an earlier case of an illegal shipment in which stuffed caimans had been hidden in and squeezed into furniture items like cabinets and tables. Europe and more specifically, Germany, is one of the world leaders in imports and exports of reptiles. A recent trend in the pet trade is to own and breed giant geckos that rather fierce, relatively solitary, and can pack a nasty bite.

While the leader in the trade of mammals is Guyana, Africa has been a large exporter of mammals over the years. African green monkeys and hyenas are among the mammals that have been received from Africa. That last shipment of Hyenas had five individuals, each priced at $7000 to $8000. CITES species like the Asian Leopard Cat are not exempt from this process either, except that they requires CITES permits issued. Possums, ant-eaters, lion cubs, skunks, even giraffes are shipped to and fro.

One small mammal that is becoming rather common in south Florida, the Agouti, is imported from countries like Guyana. The unique thing about this critter is that is has been known to be used in religious practices that involve "some form of animal sacrifice", according to Lara.

The FWS officials are required to know details of several federal acts and treaties as well as international agreements, regulations and laws like, for example, the EPA, the Lacey Act, and the Elephant Conservation Act.

Tom McKenzie, the PR guy for the south east section of the FWS, was present during both, the live inspection, and the presentation later that week. He said that interested individuals can easily access IATA's website to find a detailed copy of the regulations and guidelines for packaging animal related cargo including live animals.

The acting evidence custodian at FWS, Miami, Sylvia Gaudio explained that shipments of live animals that get dragged into the legal process, are a major concern once the case is adjudicated. Live animals are either returned to the wild if appropriate, or they are donated to non-profit organizations or to organizations that intend to use them for educational purposes only. Till such time as the animals are placed, they are tenants at the FWS' housing facility. Very rarely, the animals are sent back to their country of origin but that, said Gaudio, is an extremely complicated thing to do. However, much to the relief of the crowd, she clarified that the FWS does not euthanize any of these animals and that although civil penalties depend on a variety of criteria, criminal fines are dictated by statute.

In this chaos of incoming and outgoing international mail, which is live 80% of the time, Miami's FWS officers have managed to maintain nothing short of an impressive track record. Despite the numerous wrongly labelled shipments, no one has ever been bitten by a venomous animal, thanks to the precautions they are trained to take. Here's hoping that they are able to stand by their reputation as the pet trade grows almost exponentially by the day, and while the illegal wildlife trade is already the third most profitable trade in the world.

Apoorva Joshi
[Graduate Student, Environmental Science and Natural Resource Journalism,
The University of Montana, Missoula]