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Animals caught up in trading of illegal wildlife must be cared for

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story has been updated to protect the identity of a federal undercover agent. ]


Here's something to think about the next time you're on a plane. Every day, on flights around the world, live animals are on board, too. Plants, fish, birds, reptiles - the legal wildlife trade worldwide is estimated to be more than $200 billion a year. But the illegal wildlife trade is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, too. And as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, it's forcing wildlife officials in the U.S. to find new ways to help care for the animals they catch.


NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: After you and your luggage get off the plane at Los Angeles International Airport, the cargo that was on your plane gets taken to a warehouse like this.


ROTT: A massive facility where, on this afternoon, two pallets of boxes are stashed near a garage entrance.

ALI VENTURA: OK. So this is our coral shipment, you guys.

ROTT: Ali Ventura is an inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

VENTURA: And this is our fish shipment.

ROTT: Fish, OK.

Tropical fish imported for the pet trade, like the coral, from Indonesia by a federally licensed and known importer.

VENTURA: We're just making sure he's in compliance.


ROTT: By checking the contents of the boxes to make sure everything is what the importer says it is.

That's a lot of crabs, man.

RAYMOND HERNANDEZ: Millions of baby crabs.

ROTT: A couple of boxes down, Fish and Wildlife Service Inspector Raymond Hernandez looks through a bag of squirming, individually packaged crabs with red bellies.

HERNANDEZ: So there's nothing tucked away in there.

ROTT: Hernandez does these kinds of inspections and others with a dog trained to smell commonly trafficked species and animal parts, like ivory, at LAX, at mail facilities, at ports.

Like, how often do you guys find stuff?

HERNANDEZ: Oh, we find stuff daily.

ROTT: Really?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. So you kind of have to, like, pick and choose which ones you're going to pursue.

ROTT: Like, is it a species a person could import and they just forgot to declare it? Did a buyer know it was illegal?

HERNANDEZ: If it's inside of a shoebox, tucked away in a shoe, like, wrapped in tinfoil and all sorts of other stuff like that, you're like, OK, this is something that needs my attention.

ROTT: The latest federal data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that, from 2015 to 2019, an average of 27 live plants or animals were seized in the U.S. every day. Tamesha Woulard, the service's regional supervisory wildlife inspector for the Southwest U.S., says, today, the number is much higher.

TAMESHA WOULARD: To me, what was highlighted after COVID is that people will try to make money using a lot of different methods. E-commerce has exploded, and there are people that are making pets out of animals that were never pets before.

ROTT: Not just your fish, your reptiles, your snakes...

WOULARD: But, you know, then I started finding ants. Ants - really?

ROTT: Scorpions, clams, monkey-tailed skinks - a recent report by the United Nations found that more than 4,000 species are being targeted globally for wildlife trafficking, some of which Woulard and her colleague want to show us in a back room of their office, which, we're warned, has a strong odor.

Oh, yeah. That's ripe.

Five open plastic tanks are crammed together on the floor, each filled with turtles.

WOULARD: Box turtles.

ROTT: About 40 in total - native to eastern North America, these turtles were seized about a week ago at a post office in boxes bound for Asia, likely to be sold as pets. A single box turtle can be sold for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, depending on its coloration.

WOULARD: These were smuggled, so not in the best condition because they were trying to keep them from being detected.

ROTT: Woulard says smugglers will often tape animals' legs to their bodies or sedate them to keep them from moving. They're often sick, distressed, dehydrated, malnourished wild animals...

WOULARD: That are not going back to the wild.

ROTT: And this is the problem. When an animal is seized, wildlife officials can't just put it back. It's not always clear where it came from. It could carry disease.

WOULARD: What to do with confiscated live animals has been a concern for as long as I've been a wildlife inspector. The quantity, the care - what happens after they're here?

ROTT: Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to launch a pilot project in Southern California, creating a one-stop shop network dedicated to finding housing for wildlife confiscated in the region - at zoos, aquariums and places like the Turtle Conservancy in Ojai, Calif.

JAMES LIU: That's Bumblebee that's chasing you. This is The Dude, I think.

ROTT: James Liu is the head veterinarian at the Conservancy.

LIU: People also don't realize that they can feel through their shell. They have personalities.


ROTT: His little butt is wagging (laughter).

LIU: They can have bad days - yeah - so they like - they love getting the backs of their shells scratched.

ROTT: Since 2017, the Turtle Conservancy has accepted about 500 confiscated turtles, including about a hundred box turtles in just the last year. Liu says the spike in poached American turtles is part of a broader trend.

LIU: Now that there's a lot more wealth in these Asian countries...

ROTT: In places that have always valued turtles as pets, traditional medicine and food, reducing their own native turtle populations.

LIU: ...They now have the means to buy them from other countries.

ROTT: Like North America, which has the greatest amount of turtle biodiversity on the planet.

LIU: All those things together have created this perfect storm, where now Americans are the people who are poaching and sending them to China instead of - you know, traditionally, you think of the reverse. Like, you think of poachers in Africa or Asia for trophy hunters in the U.S. and Europe, right? It's totally backwards now.

ROTT: Facilities like the Turtle Conservancy are feeling the effects.

LANI YOO: It's a little wet, so...

ROTT: In a small building on the property, the quarantine room, vet assistant Lani Yoo shows us their most recent arrivals.

YOO: Right here we have the Eastern box turtles.

ROTT: Each with a unique black and yellow-orange-red pattern on their shells.

LIU: I think of them as kind of like starburst patterns. Basically, it's replicating, like, dappled light coming through a forest, right? That's how they're camouflaging in the leaf litter and the shrubs.

ROTT: Each turtle is held in quarantine for about 60 days, where Yoo screens them for disease, treating them, feeding them and monitoring their recovery.

YOO: And then once they're happy and healthy, we put them in an enclosure that will satisfy their needs...

ROTT: Yeah.

YOO: ...For the long run.

ROTT: Sometimes here at the Conservancy, sometimes elsewhere if there's no room.

LIU: This is essentially - you know, it's a quarantine, but really it's an evidence locker. And instead of cocaine and other contraband, it's living creatures. It's native U.S. turtles.

ROTT: Wildlife caught up in a harmful trade that Liu says is going to take everyone to solve.

Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.