Ivory Smugglers Are Outwitting Understaffed Port Inspectors

As the illegal trade in wildlife booms, law enforcement is struggling to keep up.

Seized ivory is displayed in a customs office. (Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters)

Oct 22, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The middleman in one of the biggest wildlife trafficking busts in United States history was sentenced to prison this summer after investigators found more than 400 pieces of ivory at the business he called “the most unusual store in Philadelphia.”

A judge gave Victor Gordon, 71, a 30-month prison sentence for smuggling nearly $1 million in ivory into the U.S.

Gordon paid to have ivory from African elephants carved to certain specifications and then stained or dyed so that it would appear old—exploiting a loophole in U.S. law that allows the trade of antique ivory. The ivory was shipped through John F. Kennedy International Airport and then sold to customers at Gordon’s store.

The case is considered one of the “largest seizures on record,” Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in 2011.

But why did it take nearly a decade to catch him?

“Our nation hasn’t prioritized wildlife trafficking,” David Hayes, a former Department of the Interior deputy secretary, told The Washington Post.

Hayes serves as vice chair of a wildlife trafficking advisory panel formed by President Obama in 2013. One major area of concern, Hayes said, “is the lack of inspections at our ports.”

That’s because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “the front line defense against the illegal wildlife trade,” is shorthanded at every turn.

There are 18 ports in the U.S. designated for wildlife shipments, and there are about 300 inspectors and agents who monitor the $19 billion annual illegal wildlife trade.

And it’s not a new problem.

The roster of officers has not grown even as illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn has risen significantly. Ivory commands $1,500 a pound on the global black market, and rhino horn can sell on the streets of Vietnam for as much $30,000 per pound.

Some ivory is shipped with legally caught or traded wildlife, and some is undeclared. That makes it difficult for investigators to find illegal ivory by simply spot-checking the thousands of containers that pass through U.S. ports daily.

In a 1994 report, the Government Accountability Office found that the 74 wildlife inspectors and 225 special agents tracking illegal wildlife weren’t effective.

The report estimated that wildlife inspectors detected 1 percent to 10 percent of illegally imported or exported wildlife in declared cargo shipments.

“USFWS' wildlife inspection program was established to accomplish the dual mission of monitoring trade in wildlife and intercepting illegal imports and exports of wildlife,” the report states. “On the basis of our review, we believe that FWS has had difficulty in accomplishing either aspect of this mission.”

Not much has changed since then. “We don’t have enough people to do what we have to do,” Paul Chapelle, an FWS law enforcement officer, told The Washington Post.

But the Gordon case was a big win, and in February, FWS teamed up with agencies from 28 other countries to arrest 400 criminals and seize 36 rhino horns and three metric tons of elephant ivory.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2013 to combat wildlife trafficking and pledged $10 million to better train police officers and park rangers to identify illegal trade in wildlife.