Add smuggled whale teeth to the global trade in narcotics, counterfeit goods, and other contraband.
A peek inside this unsavory biz came with the guilty pleas April 26 of two men tied to a ring that smuggled the teeth of sperm whales an endangered species into the United States. Hundreds of the giant, cone-shaped teeth were yanked from whales illegally hunted and slaughtered by fishing fleets, and smuggled into America from Great Britain, according to U.S. prosecutors. They were then sold off to merchants specializing in scrimshaw design, which etches drawings onto bone.
The teeth are huge each one weighs in at about 1 to 5 pounds and measures some 8 inches high and 6 inches across. And trading in them is lucrative. A single tooth can go for thousands of dollars, and the feds say the ring made more than $540,000 from its illicit sales. "These individuals are no different than those involved in the smuggling of narcotics," said John Kelleghan, chief investigator of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Philadelphia.
Pleading guilty to importing the teeth was Martin Schneider, a 59-year-old antiques dealer from Blue Bell, Pa. And pleading guilty to buying the teeth was Lewis Eisenberg, a former director of The Whalers Village Museum on Maui, Hawaii. Schneider faces up to 17 years' imprisonment, while Eisenberg faces up to seven years. The men are said to be cooperating with prosecutors and will be sentenced in July.
Credit goes to agents from three often unsung federal agencies who investigated the case Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Also worth checking out are the efforts by environmental groups fighting the trade. Particularly noteworthy are the activities of TRAFFIC, the monitoring network backed by the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union, and the innovative work at the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
The investigators are badly outnumbered, though. Wildlife smuggling has reportedly become the nation's second-largest black market, behind only the narcotics trade, worth some $8 billion to $10 billion annually. If this keeps up, we won't have Physeter macrocephalus to kick around anymore.
|The large cone-shaped objects are sperm whale teeth, smuggled into the United States. The pipes were initially seized as evidence but later returned.|
|All photos courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement|