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Where the wild things are no more

The National Wildlife Property Repository is the resting place for 1.5 million victims of illegal trade. They sit on shelves or in boxes as bracelets, shoes, pelts and more.

June 18, 2009|Thomas Curwen

COMMERCE CITY, COLO. — At the National Wildlife Property Repository, only the imagination runs wild. Everything else is dead and lies on the crowded shelves of this warehouse outside Denver.

There's a Hartmann's mountain zebra, its hide a rifle case -- the souvenir of a safari to southern Africa.

There are the alligators whose skins adorn eight pairs of $2,000 Air Force 1s, the scheme of a hip-hop-inspired importer.

There are the black bears whose gallbladder bile was extracted and crystallized, a futile cure for hangovers and hemorrhoids.

Some deaths here, however, defy imagining -- like that of the orangutan, whose skull, carved with decorative swirls and lightning bolts, is all that remains; or the caimans, standing on hind legs and holding silver trays like butlers; or the cheetah, with the frozen snarl and teardrop eyes.

Domestic and international laws protect roughly 5,000 animals against exploitation and extinction, and the National Wildlife Property Repository is the endpoint for all that is caught and confiscated by federal agencies in this country.

Held for educational purposes, future undercover operations and possible use by the Smithsonian or other museums, the items in this building represent, in the words of one agent, nothing less than "the evil in mankind."

The federal government may give the repository a fancy name, but it is really a mausoleum, a tomb for nearly 1.5 million mammals, insects, reptiles, birds and assorted sea life, testimony to one of the largest illegal, if not creepiest, trades in the world -- third behind drugs and guns -- worth an estimated $20 billion annually.

Skinned, mounted, cut up and/or processed, the items arrive from U.S. Fish and Wildlife field offices around the country. Specialist Doni Sprague's job is to sort and document the pieces before wheeling them through the double doors and into a dusty oblivion.

On a recent day she was processing a shipment of antiques from Detroit: opera glasses, snuff boxes, ink wells, each tricked out with elephant ivory or sea turtle shell.

The seizure was nothing scandalous. An agent dropped in on an antiques store in the upscale suburb of Birmingham, Mich. He said he was a buyer, and he kept returning for the next few months until he learned that these particular items -- objets de vitrine as they're known in the antiques trade -- had been smuggled from England.

In another age and era, they represented the privilege of empire. Today, they are a crime against the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act. In a plea bargain, the owner of the store agreed to pay a $15,000 fine and $10,000 to the Detroit Zoological Society's endangered species program.

Sprague steps between a computer and the counter, bar-coding each item. The antiques gleam under the overhead lights, pictures of a diminished elegance.

The illegal wildlife trade is colored by many shades of gray. Some violations are blatant: trafficking walrus tusks or polar bear skins. Others, such as selling these antiques, seem strangely innocent and are often prosecuted largely for the purpose of discouraging a potential market.

Laws and regulations governing the trade cover the world like a net, tangled and knotted in an attempt to unite countries and cultures in one common mission. That mission -- to conserve ecosystems and save endangered and threatened species -- came of age in this country during the Nixon administration after nearly 200 years of vanishings.

Birds that had once blanketed the sky, seals that had once crowded the Caribbean and sea turtles once so plentiful that a man could capture 100 in a single day off Cape Hatteras were gone or nearly gone, and Congress decided to act. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 put the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in charge of protecting various species. Two years later the national agenda took an international turn when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was ratified.

From the start, the Fish and Wildlife Service was overwhelmed by the task. The initial budget was $11 million, and no one could have imagined a need for the repository.

Terry Grosz, at the time the endangered species desk officer for the Division of Law Enforcement, remembers being run ragged during those early days. Inadequate staffing and critics who wanted the Endangered Species Act declared unconstitutional added to the burden.

The breaking point for Grosz occurred when 11,000 pounds of green sea turtle meat was intercepted in New York City. The importer said it belonged to the one turtle species that was not endangered. Grosz thought otherwise but had no way of proving it.

The shipment was allowed into the country, a bitter loss that eventually led to the creation of a forensic laboratory in Ashland, Ore., that could provide DNA tests -- and positive identification -- of seized items. The lab opened in 1989 and is the only one of its kind in the world.

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