From a quiet office in Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport's older north terminal, a small team of a law enforcement inspectors serves a worldwide mission. By inspecting packages at one of the globe's busiest air cargo hubs, the federal crew hopes to ease pressure on the planet's most vulnerable animal and plant species.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service is tasked with protecting the world's wildlife resources. And if there's a species listed as endangered, we're supposed to try to help maintain those populations so they don't go extinct," said Chris Andrews, who supervises a team that includes three other inspectors and a Labrador retriever.
"And one of those things that is detrimental to those species is commercial trade."
In other words, the staff of U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Import/Export Office aims to stop illegal animal products, and often live animals, from reaching their destinations, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Wildlife inspectors, part of Fish and Wildlife's Office of Law Enforcement, began working in Anchorage in 1988, Andrews said. It's now one of 18 airports that house such units. Wildlife inspectors also operate on U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada. Nationwide, there are 95 wildlife inspectors, 16 supervisors and seven canine teams. They work closely with U.S Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies.
Here, it's a big task. The Anchorage airport receives the second most landed cargo by weight in the U.S. after Memphis, Tennessee. It's among the top five in the world in cargo throughput, according to Alaska's Department of Transportation. Wildlife inspectors operate in the planes and conveyor belts of FedEx, UPS and several other cargo operations that make stops in Alaska. They clear legal wildlife imports and exports, making sure each is accompanied by proper licenses and permits.
And often, they discover contraband.
Last week, a conference table inside their second-floor office in the north terminal displayed several of the exotic items that inspectors deemed illegal and detained in 2017.
From jewelry made with a piece of protected coral to handbags made with a mosaic of python
and lizard skins to custom-crafted pool cues gleaming with elephant ivory accents, wildlife inspectors have authority to apply the brakes to the transaction.
"Anytime we see a pool cue coming out of the Philippines, we're pulling it over," Andrews said.
Fish and Wildlife is the U.S. agency with authority to enforce animal and plant conservation laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the 117-year-old Lacey Act, the first U.S. federal law to protect wildlife, which passed in 1900.
But it doesn't necessarily need to involve an endangered animal for inspectors to take action. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which provides the framework for much of what U.S inspectors enforce, allows for some commercial trade of otherwise protected species. But often sellers simply don't want to go to the trouble of obtaining a permit.
While the mission isn't new, Andrews said his crew has gotten more effective at making stops. Anchorage-based wildlife inspectors launched 342 investigations in a year's time, ending in September. That was a 65 percent increase over the previous year. They discovered undeclared wildlife and wildlife products 392 times.
One reason for the uptick in discoveries? A buoyant, 3-year-old black Lab named Doc. He joined the team in May 2016. The dog, rescued from an animal shelter, is trained to detect 10 odors, including elephant ivory, rhino horns, pythons, sea turtles and seahorses.
"He can inspect 50 boxes in the time it takes us to do one," Andrews said.
On a typical workday, Doc and his handler, wildlife inspector Chad Hornbaker, weave through the stacks of packages that are unloaded from cargo planes. Sometimes they're stationed along conveyor belts in sorting facilities, where Doc has just a moment with each box as it passes. When he alerts to an odor by sitting or scratching, the item is removed from the stream for further review.
Simultaneously, human inspectors open a selection of boxes coming into and out of the U.S. to inspect contents. The team also monitors passenger luggage at the airport's main terminal.
When the team finds contraband, inspectors send a certified letter to notify both the sender and receiver. That's the first step in a civil forfeiture proceeding, which also allows for anyone with a financial interest to appeal the decision, and even request a court date.
But most of the time, the items are simply abandoned.
"More often than not, we never hear a word from them," Andrews said.
That's not always the end of it. If inspectors can prove the importers or exporters were aware that they were involved in illegal trade, they'll issue fines. Minor violations typically result in a $300 fine, Andrews said.
But the financial interest can be much steeper than that. That was the case this year when a Washington state secondhand retailer shipped a Louis Vuitton alligator handbag to a customer in Hong Kong who had paid $9,995 for the item. Under CITES, the sale required a permit, a system that would have validated that the alligator harvest and purse manufacturing was allowed by law.
"For less than $300, they could've done it properly," Hornbaker said.
Instead, the seller declared the item was merely "used apparel" during shipping. After further review, Hornbaker discovered that the store, which was not licensed for such a sale, had been warned before.
"We issued them a violation notice because this was their second time," said Hornbaker.
If the seller doesn't appeal, they can expect to receive a notice of forfeiture. If the bag ultimately becomes property of Fish and Wildlife, it will eventually be sent to the National Wildlife Property Repository, a Fish and Wildlife warehouse in Commerce City, Colorado.
"This will be one more of thousands of handbags that they have there," Hornbaker said.
When live animals are discovered, the process can get a little more complicated.
Inspectors won't share details of live animal investigations initiated in 2017 because they're all open cases. But Andrews said live animals were discovered 10 times this year. Those incidents totaled more than 500 animals. He said typical situations might involve live turtles and lizards and, occasionally, poison dart frogs.
In 2014, 211 tiny live turtles were discovered packed into two snow boots.
The Anchorage Museum helped care for the animals during the investigation. The exporter, a Canadian citizen, ended up paying $9,000 in restitution to the museum and was later charged with other smuggling crimes.
Last year, he was sentenced to 57 months in prison after pleading guilty to six counts of smuggling, according to a Justice Department statement.
While the reach of Fish and Wildlife enforcement is strong in this country, Andrews said it can be tough to stanch the efforts of repeat offenders overseas. Andrews hopes the future will involve more coordinated enforcement efforts with international partners.
"There's one guy out of Japan that ships elephant ivory, and we've got him 18 times, but we can't write him a ticket," Andrews said.
On a global scale, the illegal wildlife trade is worth billions. Asked what difference a small team in Anchorage can make in slowing it, Andrews points to a quote he wrote on a dry-erase board in his office. The line, from Theodore Roosevelt, reads, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
"If we all do that, collectively, at all the different wildlife ports, I think we can really make a difference," he said.
Below, take a look at a few more of the items U.S Fish and Wildlife inspectors have seized in Anchorage in 2017.