It's a zoo out there for wildlife inspector Federal agency keeps tabs on exotic traffic

December 11, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

When the Baltimore Zoo gave six black-footed penguins an all-expense-paid trip to Italy late last month, Cathy Bourne had a hand in it.

When federal officials seized a leopard skin from a Nigerian man at Dulles International Airport, Ms. Bourne had a hand in that, too.

And when Secretary of State James A. Baker III returned from Central Asia, apparently with an ibex trophy, she was at Andrews Air Force Base -- waiting.

As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's only inspector in the Maryland-Washington area, Ms. Bourne has the job of examining all air and ocean cargo of wildlife and wildlife products -- the secretary of state's included.

When she boarded Mr. Baker's plane at Andrews, Ms. Bourne learned there was nothing to inspect. The secretary's planned hunting trip to Mongolia had been canceled because of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

"But I did get to shake his hand," said the former zoo keeper, who would have had to ensure that Mr. Baker's catch was properly documented. "So that made the trip worth it."

Ms. Bourne, who joined the federal agency in 1985, has confiscated crocodile-skin purses and cases of coral. She knows the difference between the common rat snake and the cobra. The two kinds of snakeskin were used to make 2,292 pairs of shoes that arrived in Baltimore from Hong Kong.

And when Ms. Bourne, 34, recently responded to an inquiry about lions, she told the telephone caller that an Asian lion is an endangered species, and the sale of its skin would be prohibited in almost any instance.

"A traveler going overseas that buys something made from an endangered animal could be liable for a civil penalty of $1,000," Ms. Bourne explained in her office at the U.S. Custom House on South Gay Street.

Many times, Ms. Bourne said, travelers are unaware of legal restrictions placed on the importation of products made from the parts of an endangered species. And while federal wildlife inspectors rarely fine a traveler, they seize the item, she said.

"We clear everything from mother-of-pearl buttons to panda semen," said Ms. Bourne, describing the wide range of wildlife products that must be inspected by her office. "Even seashells have to be cleared through our agency."

When the National Zoo traded semen from one of its pandas in an experiment with the Tokyo zoo, a special permit was needed to ship the precious cargo. That's because the panda is among the hundreds of animals and plants covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty that regulates -- and in some cases prohibits -- the commercial trade of everything from aardvarks to white wicky yams.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annually clears between $6 million and $10 million worth of products through the Baltimore and Washington airports, said Ms. Bourne. The data kept by the agency's 64 inspectors across the country are "used to determine whether a species is being overexploited for commercial purposes," she explained.

Through the compilation of such data, the United States decided to ban the import of African elephant ivory in 1989, said Ms. Bourne. The worldwide ban was enacted in January 1990.

"Each year, we would see smaller and smaller tusks being imported," said Ms. Bourne, a Pennsylvania native who now lives in Owings Mills. "And that was very indicative that the older elephants were gone. Because of this CITES treaty and because statistics were being kept, it aroused world concern over the plight of the African elephant."

As a child, Ms. Bourne had a subscription to Defenders of Wildlife magazine. At age 11, she wrote a letter to neighbors urging support for a ban on steel leg-hold traps. She views her job as the logical extension of her interest in animal conservation.

"This is a good vehicle for me. . . . It is so far-reaching because it helps protect wildlife on an international scale," she said.

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