Cain Gaona, an entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), recalls the day when he worked as an inspector at the U.S. port of entry in San Diego and a man tried to smuggle a few birds across the border.
He had put one inside his bag and another inside his shirt pocket. He had managed to make them sleepy (a common story is that people try to keep the birds quiet by getting them drunk with tequila). But, as luck would have it, the small bird in his pocket began to move and make noise, startling those around him and giving the man away.
“People are very creative,” said Gaona, who’s seen it all. People, he said, have attempted to smuggle in plants, animals and food into the country that not only put them at risk of hefty fines, but possibly endanger local species.
Take for instance Alexander Bic, a 25-year-old man arrested in April at Los Angeles International Airport with more than 1,000 dried insects in his luggage — including 150 endangered butterflies.
Bic now faces federal charges for violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act, a charge that carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years if found guilty.
The vividly colored specimens were found by customs officers on April 7 at LAX as Bic and his wife were returning from a trip to Japan. The dried and folded 5-inch butterflies from New Guinea were allegedly found among eight boxes of dead bugs discovered in Bic’s carry-on and checked baggage, according to court documents.
Authorities say Bic operates an Internet mail-order business in which he sells pinned and framed insect specimens to customers throughout the world. The endangered bird wing species sells for $100, the prosecutor said.
“Can I Bring It?” Campaign
However, not everyone is trying to support an online business. Many people may bring fruit, vegetables and animals not allowed into the country simply because they don’t understand the laws.
That’s why APHIS has launched a new campaign to urge travelers to help protect our nation’s agricultural and natural resources by making informed choices about the food, plant, animal products and handicrafts they bring into the country.
The “Can I Bring It?” campaign aims to reach U.S. residents and foreign visitors from China and Mexico entering the continental United States through California ports of entry, and from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. These busy travel markets are among the highest-risk pathways for invasive pests to enter the country.
Experts estimate nearly 50,000 invasive plant and animal species have invaded the U.S. With continued increases in international travel and trade, this number grows each year as more and more people unknowingly move invasive pests along with the goods and things they ship, mail, or carry. These pests destroy approximately 13 percent of U.S. crop production a year, and cost the United States an estimated $120 billion in crop losses, damages, and control costs.
What A Single Mango Can Do
Gaona says sometimes it’s an innocent mistake.
“A person might go to his country and pick up a fruit he or she hasn’t seen since they were a child and can’t find it here in the U.S. So they try to bring it back,” he notes.
While you won’t be arrested for trying to bring illegal fruits and plants into the country, know that this will disrupt the end of your trip. You might also face stiff fines of up to $1,000, plus spend a long time explaining yourself to U.S. authorities.
Most fruits with a seed are prohibited from entering the country outside of the proper channels that involve inspection. If you are bringing a plant or animal into the country, you must declare it so it can be inspected. If it’s not authorized in the U.S., it will be confiscated and destroyed, Gaona said.
Why is this a problem?
Gaona gives the example of a single mango. Say you actually do manage to smuggle one into the country without being detected. You get home only to find out when you cut into it that it has a worm inside. You will undoubtedly throw it away. But that worm could end up hatching into an insect. It can be the very worrisome Mexican fruit fly, Anastrepha ludens, or some type of insect unknown in this country.
The ramifications could be dire. That single mango could very well destroy entire crops or diminish production.
“Invasive pests, when they reach new environments, tend to reproduce uncontrollably because usually there are no predators to contend with,” Gaona said.
What A Nice (Illegal) Souvenir
But it’s not just plants and animals that authorities must watch out for.
A memento from your trip could also get you in trouble.
Exotic woods also fall under international protected species treaties, and as such, if you bring a souvenir — even a measly slingshot — made of a tree included in that treaty, it would be confiscated.
An often overlooked problem, dried Nopal cactus can end up as a carved souvenir made into different shapes. “There is a species of cactus at risk of extinction and must be confiscated,” Gaona said.
So don’t risk getting in trouble for that mango, souvenir or exotic bird if you plan on traveling outside the country this summer. Know that authorities are on the look out for those trying to sneak in illegal items, including drunken birds.