It's true, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Ed Newcomer, that the internet has made wildlife crime easier, and easier to hide. But it's also made it easier for wildlife law enforcement agents to pose as potential customers -- and to catch people.
"What works for criminals also works for us," said Newcomer. "The internet provides anonymity for everyone, and when we go online, the people we?re after have no idea who we are."
Wildlife crime is a huge growth industry, grown larger still by the internet. Most experts believe that the global illegal wildlife trade measures in the billions of dollars, annually. Profits in this illicit market are so huge that law enforcement officers routinely note that the black market in wildlife is now the second largest in the world, ranking only behind the trade in illegal drugs. (In the mid-1990s, an ounce of rhino horn sold in Yemen for about $1,687 per ounce, according to the World Wildlife Fund -- making it more valuable than gold, which has a current price of $667 per ounce).
Animals -- and that includes everything from insects to bizarre objects like footstools made from elephant feet -- have always had more patrons in the more developed Western countries. The nations that are most likely to have the most vigorous conservation movements also have citizens with the most disposable income. "That's the engine that really drives this train,"; said Newcomer.
The drive that pushes people to buy such things as bird-eating spiders, giant African scorpions, poisonous snakes, macabre furniture and other ornaments made from animal parts is, said Newcomer, as simple as the desire to want something that nobody else has. The buyers are frequently people in upper income levels who simply seem to be taken by a novelty of the moment. The crime is compounded when the new owners of live exotic creatures become bored -- and decide to dump them in the wild. That has helped place Florida at the top of the list of states with invasive species. California, where Newcomer is based, has its share.
How much illegal wildlife is available on the internet? Newcomer said it's difficult to know; there is no authoritative, dependable research. But as someone who spends time chasing internet crime, he's confident the numbers run to the thousands.
Newcomer thrives on the challenge; he relishes telling the story about how he and his colleagues nabbed a man in Los Angeles not long ago who billed himself as "the world's most wanted butterfly smuggler." He sold Newcomer $14,000 worth of protected butterflies and would have sold him $300,000 worth, if Newcomer had had the cash. The smuggler is spending two years in a federal prison.
The agents' undercover work is as much a battle of wits as anything else; they must change their tactics often -- to fit the changing tactics of the people they are after.
Newcomer, who earned a law degree before deciding he wanted to be a wildlife agent, isn't discouraged. "Everything I work for is incapable of dialing 9-1-1," said Newcomer. "Wildlife is resilient, but it's not inexhaustible. You worry about reaching the end of the line. I want every illegal wildlife dealer who is online to think about one thing: your next customer may be a Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agent."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 97-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System, which encompasses 548 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands and other special management areas. It also operates 69 national fish hatcheries, 64 fishery resources offices and 81 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps foreign and Native American tribal governments with conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Assistance program, which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state fish and wildlife agencies.