MIAMI — From live flying squirrels to rare jaguar pelts, wildlife inspectors at Miami International Airport say they are in a constant battle to keep illegal animal imports from entering the country.
The Miami Herald reported Saturday that the Miami International leads the nation in shipments of both living and dead animals.
One in every three wildlife inspections at the busy airports leads to law enforcement involvement, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agency recently discovered an illegal shipment of 200 flying squirrels. Illegal animal products confiscated at the airport include a South American jaguar pelt, a caiman alligator skin and a sea turtle shell.
David Pharo, resident agent in charge of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in South Florida, said many shipments have bogus permits for zoos and circuses. Pharo said smugglers also like to hide banned animals in shipments with similar animals that are approved for import.
The federal agency's nine local inspectors are overwhelmed by the volume of illegal animal imports passing through Miami's main airport, he said.
In 2013, importers at the airport declared 11,000 international shipments of live wildlife — and there's no way to accurately estimate undeclared smuggling, he said.
Inspectors can examine only about 20 percent of the flow, he said.
Many of the illegal shipments involving corals, invasive marine species or endangered marine species," he said.
Last year, Pharo's office uncovered several conspiracies involving aquariums in other states like Idaho and Michigan that were illegally harvesting marine life from the Keys and then ferrying them back north. Pharo said the cases highlight how Miami so often figures in the smuggling trade, from cocaine to corals.
"There always seems to be a Miami connection somewhere along the way," Pharo said.