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SOS Rhino : In the News : Wildlife smuggled to illegal markets
 

Wildlife smuggled to illegal markets

  ASSOCIATED PRESS
August 31. 2003 8:09PM

PITTSBURGH „ Some of the state's wildlife is being taken to supply the illegal demand for rare plants and animals, the worldwide market for which is estimated at more than $10 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

"When you try to put your arms around a global illegal market, it's tough. But look at the illegal caviar market alone," said John Webb, the U.S. Department of Justice's assistant chief prosecuting environmental crimes. "Probably about $150 million is illegally traded every year. Add in exotic birds and reptiles, and it's a substantial figure. Then add in illegal commercial fishing, illegal mahogany logging, and a figure like $10 billion is probably too low."

Wayne Alfano, a retired Fish and Boat Commission undercover detective, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for a story Sunday that the trade is in the millions in Pennsylvania alone.

The dried gall bladders of black bears are sold in Taiwan for $75 to $300 each and a bog turtle can fetch $2,500 in Tokyo pet shops. The state lists the turtles as endangered.

"The poachers are looking for the best for the market, so they take the biggest, most vibrant-looking animals," said Andy Shiels, a Fish and Boat Commission reptile enforcement agent. "They're not only the best-looking animals, but they're usually the ones with the best genes, the ones you want to be passed on."

Of the state's 29 endangered animals, two species of sturgeon are gutted for their roe and the feathers and eggs of bald eagles and peregrine falcons are coveted by collectors.

Worldwide, the rhinoceros and elephant are among the most desired species. In 1970, there were an estimated 65,000 rhinos in Africa, but conservationists estimate fewer than 10,000 remain.

Paul Asper, 71, of Lock Haven, a former Pennsylvania Game Commission officer, was arrested in 1998 after he returned from China with two rhino horns, which can fetch $500,000 each.

He was later convicted in that case and had previously served nearly three years in federal prison for smuggling endangered species, including leopard, crocodile, wild dog and antelope skins.

Asper said he's a victim of an "out-of-control" federal agency that wanted to make an example of him.

Lawrence Oliver, the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Apser, said Asper used fraudulent documents to avoid detection. "Mr. Asper blames everyone but himself. He still doesn't get it."

But for every person who is caught, federal agents say hundreds go undetected.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife inspector J.D. Bolden and his partner patrol Baltimore's airport and docks, Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., and Norfolk, Va., shipyard. Each year, some 16,000 declared shipments arrive at the sites and every week brings $1 million in legal animal shipments to Baltimore and at least one confiscation, though Bolden said inspectors can't check each shipment.