Leapin' Lizards! Smugglers Flocking to U.S. Bringing Endangered Species

From lizards to tarantulas to baby tigers to rare birds, the sky is the limit for what people try to sneak into the U.S., especially in the international terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport.

“We’ve got wildlife products that are made into medicinals,” says Lisa Nichols of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We have wildlife products brought in as food, wildlife brought in as clothing and accessories, and we have a huge amount of wildlife smuggled as live for the pet trade,” Nichols adds.

The global trade in smuggled wildlife is thriving, with worldwide sales estimated to be anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion, right behind the black market for illegal drug trafficking. With serious cash on the line, it’s no wonder people go to such extreme lengths to hide live critters in their suitcases or on their person.

Consider Sony Dong, coming into LAX from Vietnam in 2009 with 14 rare song birds strapped to his legs under his pants. “Fortunately we knew about him coming before he got here,” said Jon Bailey of U.S Customs and Border Protection. “The fact that he had feathers, a few feathers falling out of his pants helped us a bit, too.”

Dong was willing to take the risk because he could have captured roughly $5,000 a bird on the black market. Instead, he got captured and spent four months in prison. Officials say he got off easy, and could have spent up to 20 years in prison. Depending upon what is smuggled, suspects could also be charged with violations of the Endangered Species Act, a misdemeanor that could also carry prison time.

Beyond that, U.S. officials say these smugglers could be endangering the lives of everyday Americans. Most of the wildlife is coming from South America, Asia and the Middle East, and could have any number of diseases, including foot and mouth disease, avian flu, swine flu and mad cow disease.

“These are all diseases that can be harbored even in the dried meats," remarked Bailey. “It doesn’t even have to be fresh meat; even the dried meat can harbor these viruses.”

However, there are some cases, says Nichols, where people inadvertently bring illegal animal parts or products into the country. “Somebody is traveling in a foreign country, they see something like maybe an ivory carving that’s really beautiful artwork,” says Nichols, “and they don’t stop to think 'Is this legal for me to bring back?' ”

Nichols says travelers have a responsibility to check online or call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find out. Beautiful boots or wallets may seem like a good buy at the time, but if they are from the hide of an endangered species, you could find yourself regretting that purchase once you come back home to the U.S.