- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

ALSIP, Ill. The trailer loaded with nine tigers and two lions rolled past the wire-fenced gates under the cover of night so no outsiders were around to see what was about to happen.
Heavy double doors lifted and the zebra-striped truck that had hauled the trailer from Wisconsin entered the brightly lit warehouse. Two men waited inside with handguns.
The driver, carrying a stick, got out of the truck. He poked the stick through the slats of the trailer to prod the trapped animals into position to make it easier for the shooters taking aim.
The gunmen opened fire, killing eight of the tigers. Their work had just begun.
All three men dragged the bloody carcasses out of the trailer and onto the concrete floor. The shooters began skinning the tigers, then loaded them for their final destination: an exotic butcher shop in another suburb of Chicago.
There, said one of the gunmen, the skinning was completed, and the carcasses were hung on hooks, weighed and sold by the pound. Tiger meat, authorities said, was labeled as lion a legal commodity.
Two days later, the driver of the truck was frustrated. He still had a tiger and two lions in that load that had been rejected because they were too small. Now, he wanted to get rid of them.
"I'm gonna shoot 'em," he warned, "and throw 'em in a hole."
This secret slaughter in March 1998, described in court records by two of those involved, was part of a ruthless black market: a ring that authorities said bought, killed and sold endangered species tigers and leopards for tens of thousands of dollars.
"There's an old saying that if you can make a dollar off of it, there will be someone trying to kill it and sell it," says Tim Santel, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who led a 4-year investigation that resulted in charges against 16 persons.
A cruel reality
The illegal trade in exotic and endangered species, from big cats to tiny beetles and butterflies, is a multibillion-dollar business.
Some are smugglers who cross international borders with fragile and sometimes dangerous animals Komodo dragons in suitcases, pythons around their waists.
Others work inside the United States, trading in rare animals from roadside zoos and mom-and-pop game parks, specialty magazines and Internet sites.
The investigation led by Mr. Santel underscored a cruel reality: There may be more tigers in private hands in the United States than in the wild, and, chopped up for their meat and hides, they can be worth more dead than alive.
"You still have these black holes of horror and butchery going on," says Jim Mason, an animal activist in Missouri. "It's like the drug trade. We know it's bad, but we don't have the means or the will to put an end to it."
Mr. Santel and other wildlife agents documented the killings of 17 tigers, one leopard and one barasingha, an Asian swamp deer all endangered along with numerous African lions, cougars and ligers (a tiger-lion hybrid), which are not.
The cats were shot at close range while confined to cages or trailers.
Agents tracked a ring that spanned eight states Illinois, Michigan, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Kansas and Missouri and involved animal park owners, taxidermists and "trophy hunters," whose only safari was into an underground that thrived on the slaughter of captive animals.
The ring sheds light on a world where wildlife agents are spread thin, where tigers can be cheap a litter may go for as little as $750 and where the laws are filled with loopholes that are readily exploited.
'Slap on the wrist'
Even when traffickers are caught, critics complain, the punishment isn't all that severe.
"For the most part it's really just a slap on the wrist," says Alan Green, author of "Animal Underworld," an expose of the trafficking of exotic and endangered species.
Judges and prosecutors aren't necessarily to blame; federal guidelines limit the length of sentences.
Fourteen of the 16 persons charged in this case have pleaded guilty; two await court dates. The charges included violating the Endangered Species Act, which addresses the killing, and the Lacey Act, which covers the sale and transport of these protected animals.
Of 10 persons sentenced so far, Stoney Elam, former operator of an Oklahoma exotic animal farm, received the stiffest punishment: one year, half in home confinement. He also was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine to the Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save The Tiger Fund.
Elam sold two tigers and three leopards to an undercover agent for $4,800, then falsified the paperwork to make it look like it was a lawful donation.
It is a federal violation to sell endangered animals across state lines, but donations are permitted.
Todd Lantz, the driver who delivered the cats to the warehouse and brokered another deal involving four tigers that were later killed, was sentenced to five months in prison and fined $5,000. His wife, Vicki, who pleaded guilty to aiding in the sale of tigers, was put on six months' home detention.
A judge condemned their conduct as "cowardly."
Despite the success of this case, Mr. Green, the author, says it is difficult to get prosecutors to make such cases high priority.
"If a wildlife agent goes to a district attorney and says, 'I've got a case of a guy who killed a tiger,' they've got a guy who's moving tons of heroin," he says. "Is the tiger that important in their mind?"
A tip about tigers
Tim Santel got the call in 1997. An exotic-animal dealer in southern Illinois said she had heard that people in the Chicago area wanted to buy big cats to shoot them for their skins.
Mr. Santel frequently gets tips, but as one of only about 240 wildlife agents spread across the nation, his resources are limited.
But Sherry Roche's tip with its suggestion of cruelty and commercialization turned out to be worth pursuing.
To infiltrate the ring, wildlife agents posed as big-game hunters, a hired hand, an interior decorator and animal dealers.
Working with informants, the agents gained the confidence of the traffickers, transporting animals, making deals and witnessing the falsifying of records.
Money was the motive for most of those involved.
But some were collectors including Robert Martinez, a family physician who lives in Palos Heights, Ill.
He is a hunter, but in this case, his "hunting" amounted to killing four caged cats; he pleaded guilty to shooting the endangered one, a black leopard. In his plea, Martinez said, he paid $6,000 to buy the four animals, and also admitted killing a tiger in a trailer.
He sometimes posed with his kill: According to an affidavit, he showed undercover agents a photo of himself with the dead tiger and pictures with bears he claimed he had bagged illegally in Russia and Canada.
'A status thing'
Martinez declined comment, but his attorney, James Valentino, said the doctor "got caught up with this idea of having these mounts," and offered a comparison:
"Why does a woman want alligator shoes or purse?"
That attitude isn't unusual, says Craig Hoover, deputy director of Traffic North America, the wildlife trade-monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund.
"It's a status thing," he says. "There's this mentality that I need to have one of everything in my trophy room."
To build their case, wildlife agents used video cameras to conduct surveillance and even installed one inside a trailer used to haul animals.
They faced a dilemma: how to keep the investigation going to determine how widespread the ring was, without jeopardizing more cats.
"How many animals do you let them kill to document it?" asked Dan Burleson, a wildlife agent who posed as a hired hand.
A decision was made: Once an agent had witnessed the killing of an endangered animal, investigators would try to intervene to stop others.
Too many tigers
Specialists say there may be as many as 10,000 captive-bred tigers in private hands in the United States compared with up to 7,500 in the wild.
A tiger can be bought for $1,000, or even less. Its parts can generate a lot more.
In Mr. Santel's case, the hides of two tigers and one leopard were sold for $10,500 to a Michigan man who pleaded guilty. Meat was sold to the market for about $3 a pound; depending on the cut, retail prices approached $15 a pound. Internal organs were saved, believed destined for the Asian medicinal trade, which is also a lucrative market for tiger bones.
A full tiger skeleton can be worth more than $61,000, according to an estimate in a 2000 Traffic report.
The huge growth in tigers prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998 to relax its rules for generic tigers the mixed-breed offspring of different subspecies, such as Bengal and Siberian.
To streamline the paperwork, people with these generic tigers no longer needed permits to sell them across state lines; Mr. Santel says the new rule did not change their protected status.
But Scott Kamin, an attorney for Bill Kapp, maintains generic tigers are not the endangered species protected by federal law and plans to use that as his defense.
He compared the tiger killing in this case to deer hunting. "I'm not sure how different this is morally," he says.

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