Exposing Wildlife Smugglers
Williamsburg Man Takes Global View
Williamsburg, Massachusetts¾After a six-month project that at times may have put his life in danger, a local man says he has hit mostly dead ends in his effort to expose an international wildlife smuggling ring.
While living in Tokyo last year, Keith Snow, 34, launched a career in investigative journalism and, in what he says began as “a far-out search for a lead,” documented at length the legal and illegal activities of a Japanese wildlife buyer.
But except for a meeting with a U.S. wildlife agent and an article published in a small, English-language Tokyo journal, he says his attempts to turn a spotlight on the target of his investigation have proved frustrating.
Yet Snow, a 1978 graduate of Hampshire Regional High School, who has been living with his parents on Hyde Hill Road since returning in February, still has not given up trying to involve enforcement agencies in the matter, and still is working to publish his findings for a wider audience.
Snow’s adventure began in 1989, when he left his job at General Electric in Syracuse, N.Y., where he had been designing micro-electronic circuits, and headed off to see the world. His travels ultimately lasted more than four years and took him to 21 countries.
While in Tokyo, in January 1993, he decided to follow up on a September 1991 article in National Geographic magazine documenting illegal wildlife trade in the United States. One photo pictured a U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent pulling an illegal cargo of stuffed bald eagles from a hollow black bear. An endangered species protected by federal law, the eagles were to be exported and sold in foreign markets.
The article mentioned that the agent had set up a sting operation to break the case in the U.S. It also mentioned that a Japanese buyer was still at large.
It was a long shot, he said, but Snow telephoned National Geographic in Washington, D.C. to learn more about the situation. The magazine directed him to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which eventually referred him to the special agent, Larry Keeney.
Snow eventually got hold of the Japanese buyer’s name and address, and last April rode his mountain bike out to the man’s Tokyo home.
“The guy was stuffing a Tibetan musk ox in his yard,” Snow recalled. “I saw a (stuffed) tiger in a shed and just rode by.”
“I hung out across the street and watched him for two weeks,” he said. “All kinds of mysterious things were going on¾midnight meetings, strange visitors with packages.”
Three weeks after his discovery, Snow returned to do some late-night sleuthing in the peripheral buildings around the man’s house. “I found huge storerooms and huge freezers full of¾you name it¾bags and bags of cat skins, sea turtles, stuffed animals, mounted trophy fish, harp seals.”
Some of the animals were legally imported, Snow said. But the discovery of a clouded leopard¾stored in a plastic bag in a freezer¾confirmed his suspicions of foul play. “The clouded leopard is one of the world’s rarest big cats,” he said. An internationally recognized endangered species, its hunting and trade is illegal worldwide. The sea turtles and some African primates he found are equally protected, he said.
Snow said he uncovered stacks of faxes showing where the man had purchased polar bears, bobcats, walrus tusks, narwhal horns and other endangered species exploited for their Japanese market value¾as well as an address book listing people involved with the “gun trade.”
In several late-night visits, Snow said, he took many photographs of the cargo¾including the clouded leopard and a hoard of stuffed, rare parrots.
While he was concerned about his safety during his forays, Snow says there were “greater issues at stake,” and that the danger simply made his task more challenging.
“It was a major adrenalin rush,” he said, adding, “There was no reason to believe the man was not involved with the Japanese mafia,” known as Yakuza.
To confirm that some of the cargo was illegal, Snow turned to TRAFFIC Japan, an arms of the World Wildlife Fund. With headquarters in 17 countries, its parent group, TRAFFIC International, serves as a “watchdog” of global wildlife trade, Snow said.
But at the time, TRADFFIC Japan was being closed down by WWF officials in that country. According to Snow, that was because members of the Japan WWF board of directors were big-business executives, and keeping an organization such as TRAFFIC up and running was not in the country’s economic best interest.
Though TRAFFIC Japan was virtually non-existent by then, Snow said two TRAFFIC employees worked with him secretly to verify the species in the storerooms and the Japanese man’s involvement in illegal wildlife smuggling.
Keeney, who met with Snow after his return to the U.S. this winter, said that while “the things he told me are confidential,” there is no reason to doubt Snow’s findings.
Eventually, in October 1993, Snow interviewed the target of his investigation, with the help of a Japanese interpreter. The man, who is the legal owner of a trading company, told Snow he was dealing mostly in real estate now and was not involved much with wildlife trade anymore. He also claimed he had not purchased anything from North America, even though Snow had seen faxes proving he had made several legal purchases of wildlife from Canadian traders.
Snow, who arranged the interview on the pretense of information that the man was involved in illegal eagles trading in the U.S., opted not to confront him with the evidence he had collected, out of concern for his safety.
Despite Snow’s efforts, however, no action has been taken against the buyer¾in part because some wildlife trading that is illegal in other countries is legal in Japan, and in part because even if the man were involved in illegal trade, there is no Japanese agency enforcing the laws that do exist there, say Snow and Keeney.
The U.S. has no jurisdiction in Japan in this case, said Keeney.
So Snow’s main recourse has been trying to publicize his findings, in the hopes that exposing them will help promote awareness that such trade¾and markets for it¾exist.
After his article was published this January in the Japan International Journal, an English-language publication with a small Tokyo-based readership, Snow had a piece accepted by Newsweek International last October. But that article is now “pending” and may never run, according to the magazine’s Tokyo bureau chief, Bill Powell, who said other news events have kept the story on the back burner.
Snow says he still hasn’t given up and plans to try to market the piece elsewhere if Newsweek doesn’t run it.
He also has sent all the information he gathered¾including an old address book belonging to the Japanese buyer and listing his contacts¾to the U.S. arm of TRAFFIC International.
While Snow would like to see some results in this case, specifically, he says he is bothered even more by Japan’s non-enforcement of wildlife trading laws.
“It’s frustrating,” he said of his failed efforts to bring the buyer to justice, “but it’s less frustrating than the bigger picture.”