Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Understaffed and Overworked

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tries to monitor trade in illegal species

Paula Morris, The Bridge, December 1996


The Southwestern Herpetologists Society (Tri-Counties Branch), luckily for me, meets at our natural history museum. SWHS always attracts terrific speakers and their last meeting was no exception. Joe Ventura, wildlife inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Los Angeles International Airport, gave an informative talk and slide presentation on the incredible traffic in wild animals—not all of it legal—that comes under his scrutiny.

Unlike the agents who carry guns, go undercover and monitor hunting violations, Ventura says that he's strictly a wildlife inspector, checking import and export legal compliance with C.I.T.E.S. and the Endangered Species Act requirements. His duties include inspecting not only live shipments, but shipments of wildlife curios. On display during his presentation were many confiscated items including stuffed sea turtles, frog curios, exotic cat skins, reptile skin shoes, boots and bags, and, especially pathetic and lifelike, a small stuffed Brown bear cub.

Wildlife shipments generate $6 billion annually and is second only to drugs in profitability.

Up to 30% of that traffic (about $4 billion) goes through LAX each year. This flow is monitored by TRAFFIC USA, a division of the World Wildlife Fund and includes both plants and animals. Ventura's area is understaffed because the focus is on drugs in commercial shipments. There are 200 agricultural and customs inspectors, while the wildlife facility has only ten inspectors. Ventura notes that much of what comes into a country is destined to die. He mentioned coral, which has exploded in popularity in recent years. Live coral from highly endangered coral beds around the world almost always die when brought into the country.

Most confiscated skins, trophies and wildlife curios end up in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lab in Ashland, Oregon, a high-tech facility that determines the origins of confiscated wildlife.

Illegal traffic in birds was reduced with the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, but countries like Mexico are still smuggling birds, at tremendous mortality, into the U.S.

The loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta), a popular smuggling item, are coming into the country at a much slower rate and at a smaller size than previously. All seven species of sea turtles are endangered and those that are confiscated tend to be juveniles. Sea turtle eggs, however, are very big now for their aphrodisiac value.

Trade in exotic cat skins is pretty much over, but an international organization called the Safari Club can get a permit for nearly anything.

Many plant and animal species are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. Known as CITES, it is a multinational agreement by participating countries (parties). But the CITES conventions are frequently flouted by the parties by routing shipments through non-participating countries. An Appendix I listing prevents commercial trade in live animals, their parts or derivatives; Appendix II permits trade under certain controls; and an Appendix III listing allows trade only with an export permit from the country listing the animal, or a certificate of origin from a country that didn't list it.

Thailand frequently violates the Conventions, as does Indonesia. A biological study among the CITES parties revealed that Indonesia often lies, in one instance doctoring a quota of CITES II tortoises from seven up to seven thousand. Food, medicinal, and pet industries are mingled in Asia and deception is rampant.

Ghana and Togo in Africa have horrible shipping practices, with high mortality the norm.

America isn't exempt from cruelty, either. We exported 6,138,000 Red-ear sliders in a single year. In fact, Ventura pointed out that on November 16, 1996, one hundred thousand sliders were shipped to Europe. From Europe the sliders will be distributed to Argentina, Korea, and Hong Kong.

The turtles originate in Louisiana. At one time they would go to Chicago to New York and outward from there. A 50% mortality rate by Chicago wasn't uncommon. The animals were stacked like plates on their sides where they'd stay until destinations like Holland. "The Bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergi) is the third most sought-after commodity in the world," said Ventura. "They're CITES I-listed and can sell for up to $10,000 each. The most sought-after is the rhino horn, and, after that, tiger bone.

The Cuora flavomarginata, commonly known as the Asian snake-eating box turtle, retails for about $20 in the pet trade. The Cuora trifasciata (Three-banded box turtle) however, is considered a great delicacy in Hong Kong, where one can be purchased for $900 U.S. Ventura recounted a story where an Asian businessman spotted an American associate's turtle terrarium and resident C. trifasciata. He asked him how he planned to prepare it.

Other valuable reptiles and amphibians are: the Big-headed turtle (Platysternon megacephalum); the Tuntong turtle (Batagur baska); Mata-matas (a very popular smuggling item); Podocnemis expansa (Arrau River turtle); and Surinam toads.

Rather than let Congress gut the Endangered Species Act, it had to be demonstrated that the Act was working. To this end, the Indian flap-shelled turtle (Lissemys punctata) was removed, since, with protection, its numbers were again growing.

"Mortality in reptiles is phenomenal," said Ventura, and gave us a rundown on the status of some of the most popular reptiles and some interesting facts.

  • Wood turtles are quite rare in the pet trade now because they're vigorously protected within their ranges
  • Snapping turtles no longer get shipped to England where they were once used for soup
  • In the 70s Campbell's Soup put out a turtle soup using snapping turtle meat, but no longer offers it
  • Sulcatas have become too common. After the California Desert tortoise, the Sulcata is the most popular in California
  • Leopard tortoises (Geochelone pardalis) are fragile and die too easily for them be imported in any quantity
  • The Radiated tortoise (Geochelone radiata) is a success story and should be removed from the CITES list
  • There are less Red-foot tortoises (Geochelone carbonaria) coming in now
  • The Elongated (Geochelone elongata), Burmese Brown (Geochelone emys), and Impressed (Geochelone impressa) tortoises are all so specialized that they die in transit and aren't profitable for smugglers anymore
  • The Bell's and Home's hingebacks (K. b. belliana and K. b. homeana) are very common and continue to arrive in large numbers
  • Russia has a quota of 18,000 Horsfields tortoises a year
  • Often Libyan "Greek" tortoises are smuggled to Greece for export, thereby circumventing the CITES agreement
  • The Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) is now extinct. They've all been collected except for pockets in Israel and possibly Libya.
  • Habitat destruction and the pet trade has knocked them down and out

Inspector Ventura also went through an extensive list of snakes, lizards and amphibians.

  • Uromastyx are all illegal in the U.S. now, but there are still heavy imports, especially from Yemen and Mali
  • A theft of CITES permits recently enabled many endangered species to be exported "legally" before it was stopped
  • Frilled dragons are fragile, but being imported anyway. They only fan their neck skins when threatened and collectors don't realize this
  • Virtually all Chinese water dragons die from cold because they can't live below 80° F
  • Basilisks come in regularly from South American countries
  • Tegus seldom come in alive; they come in as boots
  • Most of the larger lizards are CITES II-listed. They're beleaguered on three fronts: food, skin trade, and pet trade
  • Skinks are popular and large quantities are coming in
  • Chameleons still get shipped in large quantities, but there's better husbandry and less mortality among captives these days
  • Oddly enough, Leopard geckos are more valuable wild-caught because they've been overbred in captivity
  • Phelsuma come in from Madagascar. Madagascar is greedy for revenue and they will ship anything
  • The taxonomy on Monitor lizards is confusing and importers tend to split legal hairs in species to avoid prosecution
  • Plated lizards are very specialized and don't survive import. Their habitat is being depleted and they're rapidly heading for extinction
  • Monitor and tegu lizard skins are higher in quality than snake or iguana skins
  • Green iguanas often arrive with scratched eyes and bodies; they're packed 100 to a 2'x2' box in cotton bags
  • All Cyclura (Rhino iguanas) are now listed on CITES I
  • The Fiji iguana (of Tom Crutchfield fame) never was found
  • The Caiman lizard comes in only in skin form, never live animals
  • Pipa pipa toads and the popular "Pac Man frog" are going out in the wild from overcollection
  • Tarantulas are a big trade item sent to Germany and Holland, but all are now protected under CITES

Confiscated items get sent to a large warehouse in Commerce City near Denver, Colorado. They may be used in a conservation awareness program called Suitcase for Survival (or Cargo for Conservation), an assortment that schools and institutions can use for show and to encourage species protection.

Cheaper items or those that are ruined by improper curing get burned. The repository may auction high-dollar items like confiscated skins destined for couture use by Gucci or Chanel. Inspector Ventura believes that such auctions are counter-productive and send the wrong message.

Asked by an audience member where confiscated animals go, Ventura said that the California Turtle and Tortoise Club takes a lot of the animals for distribution to competent keepers and gets virtually all turtles and tortoises.

I asked Ventura who the biggest importers of live reptile and amphibians are here in California and he replied, "L.A. Pets and CalZoo."

If you need to contact Joe, you can reach him at (310) 328-6307. Joe has eight iguanas of his own and loves tortoises.

A Note for Teachers and other Wildlife Educators
by Melissa Kaplan

Wildlife educators, nature centers, and teachers may be able to get their own Suitcase for Survival (also called Cargo for Conservation by writing, on their letterhead, to the USFWS depository in Colorado. The letter should describe the educational programs for which the materials in the Cargo would be used. The items in the Cargo include a variety of shoes, belts, wallets, jewelry, tanned/dyed skins, artwork, and empty medicine boxes (example: tiger bone pills) made from protected species and from legal species that were found in illegal shipments that were confiscated. The turn around time from the time your request is approved to the time you actually get the Cargo may be two years or more. While the Cargo is free, the items all remain the property of the USFWS. Each item is tagged and inventoried, and unused kits should be returned to the USFWS so that they may be reassigned to other educators. Send your request to:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Cargo for Conservation
Rocky Mountain Arsenal Building 619
Commerce City, CO 80022 303-287-2110

For more information on the USFWS departments, programs and functions: : U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service


The World Wildlife Fund/TRAFFIC(USA) has an educational package designed to assist people teaching students and adults about the wildlife trade. The package includes over 50 35 mm slides, quizzes, lecture materials, activities, leaflets and other information. The Wildlife Trade Education Kit is $45.00 (as of the time this article was written in 1996), and can be purchased from the WWF by writing or calling them at:

World Wildlife Fund
1250 Twenty-fourth Street, NW
Washington DC 20037
(202) 293-4800

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