Illegal Animal Trafficking Tough to Stop Despite San Jose Bust

Max Schad received an unusual email last summer. A French investigator claimed to have information that someone in San Jose was using eBay to purchase an endangered—and taxidermied—species of owl from France. As fish and game warden for California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Schad gets a lot of tips about people illegally buying and selling wildlife. He doesn’t have nearly enough time to pursue every lead.

But this case was different. Not only was it a violation of state and federal law, because this particular owl was part of a protected species—it was also a violation of an international treaty to protect endangered plants and animals.

The only information the French investigator could provide was a P.O. Box in San Jose. Schad reached out to the postal inspector to locate the woman who wanted the rare dead birds. “I got an address that ended up being the wrong address,” he says, “and we basically spent a couple of months chasing down addresses. I couldn’t find the person.”

But then he got a break. He spoke with one of her old landlords, who gave a description of a car the woman’s husband drove and mentioned they still lived on San Jose’s East Side.

“It was a pretty specific description—they had some things done to [the car]—so it was easy to find,” Schad says. “I ended up trolling the East Side for a little while, and I ended up finding the vehicle parked in an apartment complex. Through the plate I was able to get the correct address. We made contact at the door, she invited us in, and then we found all these critters mounted inside her apartment.”

What he found inside was unlike anything else he had ever seen: “There had to have been about 50 animals or something—everything from a huge African lion to smaller lizards,” Schad says. “It was pretty impressive.”

The suspect, Dora Martha Jimenez Zepeda, admitted to collecting mounted animals—a hobby of sorts—and said she bought most of them online. She pleaded no contest in March to unlawful possession of birds of prey, resulting in a $3,600 fine, 300 hours of community service, three years of probation and the kicker—relinquishing her many taxidermied animals.

Wildlife is one of the biggest illegal trades in the world, with some estimating the amount of transactions at nearly $20 billion. Adam Roberts, CEO of the animal advocacy group Born Free USA, says animal trafficking is “up there with drug trafficking and human trafficking in terms of illegal activity and profitability.”

Rhinoceros horns run about $90,000 per kilogram, Roberts says, making a single horn worth up to half a million dollars. Meanwhile, elephant ivory is $2,000 per kilogram. These high prices have led to the widespread killing of animals for their parts, and the decimation of certain species. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the African elephant population plummeted was cut in more than half, from 1.3 million to about 600,000.

California, in particular, is a major poaching site. Given its proximity to Asian markets, the state acts as a hub for imports and exports. California’s black bears, which are hunted across the state for their bile and gallbladders, have been in especially high demand, Roberts says. They are shipped abroad and around the country to be used as ingredients in traditional Asian medicines and high-end shampoos and cosmetics. “You would find bears in the woods that were killed with their abdomen sliced open and their gall bladder taken out,” he says.

While statistics on how many black bears are being killed every year are lacking, Roberts has concerns about how quickly the animal population could disappear. “In 1900, there were a hundred thousand tigers, and now there’s somewhere between three and four thousand,” Roberts says. “So we know in the course of one century what can happen to a wildlife population, if there’s significant pressure to kill them for their parts. And bears would not be immune.”

Elly Pepper, a policy advocate for the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says California is also a national hub for ivory trade. “It’s the second-largest retail market, with San Francisco and Los Angeles as its epicenters,” she says.

Current California law prohibits the importation, sale and purchase of ivory, with one big exception—not if it’s older than 38 years. Pepper refers to this clause as the “pre-1977 loophole.” According to a 2015 NRDC analysis, approximately 80 percent of ivory sold in San Francisco is illegal under this law. But determining the exact age of ivory is nearly impossible without DNA analysis or carbon dating, so new ivory easily slips onto the market.

“California is saying that old ivory is okay, new ivory is not—but we can’t tell the difference,” says Pepper. She estimates 100,000 elephants were killed by poachers in Africa between 2012 and 2012. “Basically, permitting a legal trade in old ivory serves as a cover to facilitate the illegal market of ivory from recently killed elephants.”

The NRDC is now sponsoring AB 96, which would make all ivory transactions illegal, regardless of age. (Californians can keep ivory antiques they already have, and ivory could be transferred to legal heirs.) Instead of a fine of up to $5,000 and up to six months in jail, offenders would be required to pay $50,000 or two times the amount of the contraband—whichever is greater—and up to a year in jail.

This term of incarceration is more than the typical term for disturbing the peace or misdemeanor battery, says J.J. Kapp, acting assistant public defender for Santa Clara County, but similar to what many people get for driving under the influence.

“You can challenge someone to a fight and be charged with disturbing the peace and get 90 days,” Kapp says, “whereas someone selling ivory could get a year in county jail.”

Terry Anderson, distinguished senior fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, argues that criminalization of the wildlife trade has been “totally ineffective.” Instead he advocates regulation over bans and penalties. 

“I would liken it to our drug laws and the drug trade and ask how we’ve done with that,” he says.

Even though Pepper is pushing for tougher regulations in California, she acknowledges that the state already has more robust rules than elsewhere in the country. Many states simply relying on federal law, such as the Endangered Species Act.

For instance, California bans the possession of any part of an endangered bird of prey—including feathers—as well as the importing of elk antlers. Residents are explicitly prohibited from owning sloths, anteaters, platypuses, lemurs, bats, aardvarks, elephants and manatees. Any animal part that is native to California is also barred from sale, even if it was acquired in another state.

Despite these strict regulations, there is the lack of bodies to enforce the laws. Kapp says that in his 25 years as an attorney, he’s only seen one exotic animal case. And despite the frequent tips Schad receives, the fish and game warden only pursues four or five cases a year.

“It’s one of the many things we do, but it’s not something we have a lot of time to devote to up here,” Schad admits. “There’s plenty of work out there, it’s just the manpower that’s definitely lacking.”