for National Geographic News
From monkeys smuggled in underwear to tortoises shipped with Chinese toys, the illegal animal trade through Los Angeles is growing increasingly daring—and lucrative—officials say.
A partial list of smuggled wildlife seized by federal agents in Los Angeles in recent years reads like a who's who of the world's most exotic animals.
The loot includes hundreds of piranhas and stingrays from South America, Asian leopard kittens from Indonesia, thousands of threatened songbirds from West Africa, protected parrots from Mexico, Hawaiian chameleons, a jaguar pelt, even the head of an endangered Bengal tiger.
The creatures have been seized from backpacks, shipping crates, and smugglers' own clothes. (See photos of some of the more exotic animals smuggled into L.A.'s airport.)
"You name it, we've seen it," said Joe Johns, chief of the environmental crimes section at the U.S. Attorney's office.
Johns prosecutes those who kill endangered species or smuggle the rare animals and plants into the L.A. region.
These days, he is a busy man.
"We're investigating as many cases as we ever have," said Johns, whose office has grown from one prosecutor to six in the past eight years.
The global trade in smuggled wildlife is booming, with worldwide sales estimated to be anywhere from U.S. $10 billion to U.S. $20 billion.
In the United States, the trade is the second largest black market after illegal drug traffic.
Much of the trafficking is centered on Los Angeles.
"We're not only a gateway to Central America, but we're also right at the core of the trade with the Pacific Rim," said Marie Palladini, special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles.
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