Smuggle Cops 

Memphis will join 16 other U.S. cities as a designated port for importing and exporting wildlife.

As a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) inspector, Daryl Victor has seen some bizarre attempts to smuggle illegal wildlife and wildlife products into the country.

While working at the USFWS Law Enforcement Office in Atlanta, he helped detain an airline employee who'd tried to smuggle in a live monkey by taping it under her arm. His office was called to meet the plane upon landing after the pilot saw the monkey running loose on board; it had escaped after the smuggler fell asleep. He caught another guy walking off a plane with an elephant tusk under his arm, and he once seized a tropical fish hidden in a water bottle.

The importation and exportation of wildlife and products made from certain wildlife skins and meats is only legal at designated ports in 14 cities across the country. On January 5th, Memphis, along with Louisville and Houston, will be added to the list of ports. Victor will be supervising the new Memphis office.

"Memphis was chosen because of the layout of the other designated ports. They form a circle around the U.S. Besides Denver, there was nothing internal," said Victor.

The site was also chosen because Memphis International Airport, thanks to FedEx, ranks as the world's largest processor of international airfreight.

The Memphis port will have three main offices -- one at the airport to intercept smuggling passengers and check in legal import/export items, a main cargo office for commercial dealers of wildlife and related products, and one at FedEx that will handle wildlife products but no live animals.

At a designated port, certain animals and products are legal for import and export, but they must be declared at the USFWS office. Items such as ivory, caviar, zebra skins, and tropical fish and birds must be declared, and the office will decide the legality of each item. They also handle shipments for zoos, circuses, and laboratory animals for scientific research. The office doesn't handle domestic animals or domestic products.

"We'll have inspectors here on January 5th, and we'll be doing exactly what the customs office does," said Victor. "When a plane lands here with cargo, if they find wildlife products or live wildlife there, that would go through us. If it's not declared, we'll be checking to see if it was a mistake or if it's smuggling."

According to Victor, wildlife ranks second to drugs for smuggling. In fiscal year 2004, wildlife inspectors processed more than 146,000 wildlife shipments nationwide.

The office uses various national and international laws and treaties, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Act, and the African Elephant Conservation Act, to determine the legality of wildlife and wildlife items. The Lacey Act, the nation's first federal wildlife protection law, gives the office the right to enforce the laws of other countries.

"Brazil is a great example. They have zero tolerance on their wildlife and wildlife products coming out of the country," said Victor. "If you don't have a permit from the exporting country, we seize the items."

Seized items are held until the case is resolved. Live animals are held at special facilities, but Victor said the office does not kill wildlife. Animals taken from the wild are not released back, however, because it's nearly impossible to determine exactly where they came from.

The penalty for smuggling can range from being forced to turn over the animal or product to the government to fines or jail time.

Victor said he had no idea what types of smuggling may turn up in Memphis, but he suspects his office will quickly become one of the busiest in the nation.

"We think having the overnight [FedEx shipping] and the [future] NAFTA Highway 69 will cause the Memphis office to become one of the busiest USFWS ports," said Victor. "Memphis is very serious about becoming an international hub, and it's generally quicker and cheaper to bring things through here." •

E-mail: bphillips@memphisflyer.com

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