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It's a Jungle Out There : Wildlife Smuggling Is Booming, Nowhere More Tham in the U.S., Where the Good Guys are Undermanned and Overwhelmed

October 15, 1995|Michael J. Goodman | He is a contributing editor to this magazine. His last article was on Johnnie L. Cochran Jr

Sunday. 9 a.m. Sixty-five international shipments of 2,428 boxes containing 878,394 tropical fish swimming in sealed sandwich bags await inspection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Los Angeles International Airport.

Smuggling of dangerous or endangered species is the government's concern. In a perfect world, every box should be cut open, each bag checked. But, as usual, there is just one inspector. This Sunday, it is Mike Osborn, supervisor for Southern California. And, as always, the bagged fish have consumed much of their oxygen during the flights from Asia and SouthAmerica. They need more, soon. Osborn's search for contraband must be swift and cursory.

As often happens, Osborn has a tip from an informant. "I was told that a certain importer is smuggling in endangered arawanas," Osborn mumbles with needle-in-haystack optimism.

Arawanas, also known as golden dragons, look like skinny catfish with iridescent scales of green, gold, silver or red. They are revered by many Asians as bearers of good luck. Osborn explains that certain endangered arawanas from Southeast Asia are illegal to import. But for those who take the risk, smuggled arawanas can bring up to $10,000 each in the United States to adorn private collections, corporate offices and restaurants.

Osborn spots the suspected smuggler's van outside the Cathay Airlines cargo office. He shakes his head with disdain.

"That's the guy, Norm Golub, a real--well, you decide."

The office is crowded with importers anxious for Osborn to clear their shipments. As we approach, a man of considerable girth, with basset hound jowls and gold gleaming from neck, wrists and fingers, throws up his hands in slapstick surrender. "Raid!" he screeches. "It's the feds! I'm guilty! Take me to jail, Officer Osborn!"

It's Norm Golub, 64, an exotic animal dealer in Los Angeles since 1956. Even Osborn allows that Golub is an accomplished entrepreneur.

Golub agrees, at length: "I've made big scores . . . made a fortune in the1980s buying 10,000 to 15,000 baby caymans [similar to crocodiles] at a time from Colombia for peanuts and selling them for $10 each in Taiwan. Somebody--honest, it wasn't me--started a rumor that cayman meat was an aphrodisiac, and the skins were valuable [caymans are now regulated]."Golub chuckles to himself, then frowns. "Naturally, the feds assumed wrongly again that I was the biggest smuggler in America."

Golub was implicated briefly in 1987 in a federal investigation of reptile smuggling. His home was searched and seven boxes of records were seized by agents. He was questioned by a federal prosecutor and released. Several other importers and a federal wildlife inspector pleaded guilty. Since then, Golub has been caught with illegal fish, but they were not arawanas.

Osborn heads for Golub's shipment of 40 boxes stacked on a pallet. Golub scurries behind, heckling. "Mike, any time you want to be a hero I'll bring in something illegal and you can catch me." Golub giggles.

Osborn, 40, is tall and lean with the weary sternness of a headmaster trying to discipline rich brats. With the ease of a gunfighter, he draws a five-inch folding knife of honed German steel from a worn leather sheath and slices open a box marked "Live Fish. Hong Kong." He checks the plastic bags, packed in crumpled newspaper, reseals the box and opens another.

Golub pretends to shield a stack of boxes with his body. His voice and face sadden. "Gee, Mike, you look tired." He brightens. "Why don't I inspect these boxes and you inspect those boxes?" Osborn's face is blank.

A competitor of Golub hoots: "Where's the illegal fish, Normy? You're overdue!"

Osborn manages to fight a grin, but not the cattiness in his voice. "Why don't any of the other importers like you, Norm? Why is that?"

Golub is unruffled, blase. "Oh, because I have a big mouth, and they're jealous because my checks don't bounce and theirs do."

Osborn searches Golub's last box. "Nothing," he tells me under his breath. "Bad tip. Most of them are. Importers are always back-stabbing, trying to get at each other."

Golub whines: "Can I go, Mike?"

Osborn grunts: "Please do."

Golub waves. "Bye, suckers. Merry Christmas."

Later, as we talk at his home, which overlooks a fish-shaped swimming pool, Golub brags: "I could bring in something illegal every week if I wanted. The feds are so overwhelmed, they're useless . . . a joke."

Beneath Golub's crust of hyperbole lies a core of truth. Nationwide, 74 federal wildlife inspectors are spread among more than 300 ports of entry.

"A majority of wildlife shipments receive no physical inspection," a 22-month General Accounting Office study revealed in December of 1994. Forty-four of 63 inspectors surveyed in the GAO review "believed that an illegal shipment would be able to escape detection over 50% of the time." Even their supervisors agreed that the inspection program "is detecting verylittle illegal wildlife trade."

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