Every day, hundreds of customs and border agents patrol the U.S.-Mexico border crossings are looking for illegal drugs, weapons and undocumented immigrants.
Working side by side with border agents is Lockett, an English lab, and her handler, Ray Hernandez, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspector. Together, they're searching for a different kind of smuggler.
“A lot of snake skins are used in fashion accessories: Shoes, handbags, wallets, belts,” Hernandez said.
Smugglers are bringing animal furs and skins from the world's deserts, oceans and rain forests. The items are sometimes worth just a few dollars in their native lands, but can sell for hundreds, even tens of thousands of dollars, in the U.S. and other wealthy nations.
Fish and Wildlife Supervisor Mike Osborn said, "The problem is, too many snakes have been taken for that trade. So we don't see the big snakes anymore. They're gone."
Osborn showed NBC 7 the costly keepsakes made from endangered and protected species. They are smuggled through border crossings from San Ysidro and Otay Mesa to Arizona.
"So any part or product of an endangered species is not allowed to be brought into the United States, period. Whether it's a coat, whether it's a handbag made from endangered crocodile, whether it's a skin, whether it's a live animal," Osborn said.
NBC 7 Investigates obtained detailed information about the items Fish and Wildlife inspectors, with help from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, are finding at local ports of entry.
In the past five years, there have been more than 600 seizures, including:
- Sea turtles which are poached for their meat and skin
- Sea cucumbers which are a delicacy in some cultures, but endangered
- Iguana skins
- Whale bones
- Sea shells
"It's usually declared as toys or computer parts or hangers or something like that,” Hernandez said. “And when she (Lockett) alerts, I go and open the box, and lo and behold, it's a pair of python skin shoes or a handbag or crocodile or something like that.”
Lockett was first trained to detect five endangered species: Elephant, rhinoceros, sea turtle, sea horse and python skin. She's learned dozens more, including snake and lizard skin, elk and deer horn, tigers and lions.
Some smugglers use floor mats to conceal illegal items, including 27 swim bladders from Mexico's endangered Totoaba fish. An inspector at the Calexico border uncovered those just that last year. A search of the suspect's home, Song Shen Zhen, uncovered another 200 bladders.
The fish bladders are highly prized in Asia. They are used as an ingredient in soup and used as a medicine. Experts say the bladders sell for $1,500 each in Mexico and up $20,000 each in Asia.
It’s estimated the black market value of the bladders smuggled by Zhen is $3.6 million.
Zhen pleaded guilty to a single count of smuggling and unlawful trade in wildlife in August. He served a brief term in federal jail and is now on supervised release. He was ordered to pay back more than $120,000 in restitution.
Other cases involving illegal smuggling include:
- In May, a San Diego man was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine after he pleaded guilty to selling the endangered Asian arowana fish online.
- In March, a man was ordered to pay $500,000 in restitution to the Mexican government after he pleaded guilty in June 2013 to conspiring to smuggle totoaba fish bladders.
- In 2011, Nathan Lee pleaded guilty to illegally fishing in Mexican waters for albacore tuna and returning to the U.S. with the fish aboard.
Border agents said many of the seizures are made at the pedestrian crossings, from tourists returning home with a pair of boots, a handbag or wallet made from a threatened or endangered animal.
Fish and Wildlife tells NBC 7 Investigates those tourists often have no idea they've broken the law. They are not charged with crime but must surrender the illegal items.
Once U.S. Fish and Wildlife has received abandonment or forfeiture of the property seized, they donate or loan the items for scientific, educational or public display purposes.
Live evidence is donated to zoos and aquariums. Most wildlife products seized are sent to the National Wildlife Property Repository located in Commerce City, Colorado near Denver. From there, many of the items are donated to educational facilities, non-profit organizations and conservation agencies to aid in teaching about endangered species and other wildlife.