Costly Keepsakes: How the Government Is Cracking Down on Animal Contraband

It’s a warehouse with more than a million examples of the strange and unusual things people take or make from wild animals.

Elephant toenails. Mounted macaques. A bag filled with 1,824 snake gall bladders: it's all here in the National Wildlife Property Repository in Denver, Colorado.

That's where U.S. Fish and  Wildlife inspectors send animal contraband seized at customs from people who try to bring them into the country, despite the United States' strict laws limiting imports of animal products.

The News 4 I-Team got a behind-the-scenes look at that warehouse -- and at customs inside Dulles International Airport as custom officers searched suitcase after suitcase for smuggled goods.

"There's a lot of wildlife that's easily obtainable in foreign countries that you actually cannot bring across the border," said custom officer Kelly French said.

She is trained to recognize every type of animal illegal to import into the United States, using nothing more than a small scrap or a single feather.

French took a hard look at hunting spears a man traveling from South American packed in his luggage. She determined they were decorated with chicken feathers and allowed into the country.

Every day can be a surprise, French said -- and, shortly thereafter, opened a duffel bag containing a large, taxidermied bull’s head.

It, too, was allowed through.

But French didn’t let in three feet of elephant bone.

"It was a full-sized elephant rib that they had picked up off the savannah and they brought it in, thinking it would be a neat souvenir," French said.

She went looking for more elephant bone in another suitcase. She found a fake ivory necklace. But she also found shoes made of real ostrich skin and multiple necklaces of real coral.

“We do see some smuggling, but more commonly people simply don't know the regulations," French said.

The News 4 I-Team analyzed a federal database of all the animal contraband seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife within the last five years.

At Dulles alone, the I-Team found, inspectors made almost 500 seizures, including $20,000 worth of caviar and a lot of monkeys.

They intercepted zebra and leopard skins, giraffe bone, wildebeest skin and horn, whale meat and an octopus.

Across the country, federal inspectors confiscated 1.5 million items worth more than $12.2 million.

"How can there possibly be left anything living when you see the quantity and volume that comes in?" asked Doni Sprague, who manages the collection at US Fish and Wildlife's Denver warehouse.

Inspectors send their seizures to Sprague, who unpacks, catalogs and places each item on a shelf.

She showed us a common tourist item she sees here at the repository: a purse wrapped with the head and feet of a crocodile. "They killed a young crocodile to make a really tacky purse,” she said.

This is where experts start to see trends. They’ve recently noticed many boxes coming in full of seahorses used in Asian medicine.

"It's kind of a sense of dread that some of these animals, even in my children's lifetime, aren't going to be around," Sprague said.

There are shelves full of tiger heads -- and one tiger cub.

"This particular tiger was taken while it was in utero,” Sprague said. “So this tiger never even had an opportunity to be born or have a chance at survival."

After eighteen years of working in the repository, Sprague has developed a theory about why there's a market for animal products. "Part of this business is driven by people's need to have something so unique or no one else has," she said.

But, Sprague said, if it's made out of animal and you try to bring it into the country, there’s a good chance that that frog purse or that bear claw necklace will end up here in this government graveyard.

"We really are the final resting place for these things," she said.

Contact Us