Cold-Blooded Smuggling

In one cage a quintuplet of blue-green rhinoceros iguanas crowd driftwood perches. In another, cougar cubs wrestle like rambunctious children. Seized at Miami International Airport two years ago, the cats arrived here when they still fit in the palm of a hand. South American marmosets, banned as imports, clutch the mesh of their cages like grimacing puppets. Agoutis, stout brown rodents smuggled in for Santeria sacrifice, scurry among dead leaves and ashen sand, the aluminum slats shading their cage weighed down by dead wood and rotting grapefruits.

In one shadowy corner of the overgrown compound hides a long, brown trailer bearing a treasure trove of snakes, lizards, and turtles. It's here that were housed the pancake tortoises and American alligators that started a chain reaction of Florida arrests among the country's busiest reptile-smuggling operations.

Two years ago when Hollywood reptile importer Mike Van Nostrand's slippery creatures were seized, they wound up in the trailer. Some still remain, scattered among the young crocodiles, scaly-skinned caimans, baby tortoises, and Central American boas that crowd containers inside. Others have already been doled out to zoos or universities. Van Nostrand, a self-confessed bigtime smuggler and the biggest legitimate reptile importer on the East Coast before his import license was revoked last year, has lost hundreds of cold-blooded creatures to this place over the years, as have more than a few other Florida importers.

"We've been getting a lot more reptiles," says the big, bearded animal expert and reptile breeder who runs the evidence compound for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service at a secret location about 100 miles north of Miami. Hidden in a rural, middle-class neighborhood, among knobby oaks and lush tangelo trees, the place is a boisterous way station for contraband critters, where living evidence seized in Miami awaits judicial disposition.

Reptiles and amphibians -- "herps" in the lingo of collectors and breeders -- form the backbone of what Interpol estimates is the $6 billion worldwide trade in illegal animals, contraband second only to drugs in estimated value. And among live-animal entry points, Miami ranks number one in the nation -- beating out New York and Los Angeles -- for the volume and variety of live creatures clearing customs (and those sneaking past). Tens of thousands of frogs, snakes, lizards, turtles, and tortoises enter South Florida every year, among them some of the rarest -- and deadliest -- creatures on Earth. Most wind up in the hands of a few big importers and wholesalers, like Van Nostrand's Strictly Reptiles, companies that thrive by feeding the vast hunger for the rare and obscure among the country's herp fanatics (the largest such group in the world).

The lure of fast, easy money inspires many American importers to smuggle in species protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global treaty designed to protect wildlife from overexploitation that is enforced in this country by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Importers know there are plenty of wealthy collectors who will shell out big bucks to be the first kid on the block to have an endangered species, people willing to pay more than $10,000 for a plowshare tortoise from Madagascar or an Angolan python. Many of these species, available cheap to smugglers in their native habitats, now teeter on the brink of extinction, and conservationists worry their disappearance might alter the balance in fragile Third World ecosystems. Rarity only makes the creatures more desirable to the handful of wealthy collectors who can afford to own them, and who tend to view reptiles more like rare coins than household pets. No one knows for sure how much damage smuggling has done to native habitats since CITES went into effect in 1973, but importers have generally proven more than willing to ignore such conservation concerns.

"Smugglers are driven by pure greed," says Chip Bepler, a Fish and Wildlife agent who has spent the last five years building cases against Strictly Reptiles and other South Florida reptile importers. "They think there's no real risk involved, that they'll get away with a slap on the wrist if they're caught."

Van Nostrand's company, with annual sales estimated by government sources to exceed $5 million, is still one of the country's largest wholesalers. (He lost only his import license and continues to sell creatures brought in by third-party importers.) Prosecutors contend that, before he was arrested in 1997 and sentenced to half a year in prison and ordered to pay a hefty fine, Van Nostrand dealt in more than 1500 smuggled animals. Many were brought in by freelance smugglers, men like Robert Lawracy and Dwayne Cunningham, a pair of South Florida cruise-ship workers who sold dozens of reptiles to Strictly and face trial later this month in Fort Lauderdale.

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Jay Cheshes