Elephant tusks, wild furs, alligator skins, and exotic birds. That’s what wildlife thieves used to smuggle. But by the close of the twentieth century a new reality was emerging: Almost anything in nature can become contraband. Page 12
Take the terms wildlife smuggling or poaching. What do you picture? Elephants being killed for their tusks on the plains of Africa? Chinese ships filled with rare and exotic animals running aground on a reef in the Philippines? Men trying to get through airport security with animals strapped to their thighs?
While these are all real life examples of wildlife smuggling or poaching the scourge actually hits close to home in places you would not normally associate. In Craig Welch’s Shell Games: A True Story of Cops, Con Men, and the Smuggling of America’s Strangest Wildlife we get a glimpse into this world and the characters who inhabit it.
Most of the book focuses on the illicit trade in one strange animal: geoduck (panopea generosa). Unlike the name, a geoduck is not waterfowl but a type of digging or burrowing clam. If you have ever watched Top Chef you are sure to have seen one of these phallic creatures revealed as a secret ingredient in a challenge. Television producers cannot help themselves when it comes to unveiling something that most people naturally associate with a part of Ron Jeremy’s anatomy. Regardless of appearances, there is a great demand for geoducks from gourmands around the world.
Whenever there is an appetite for something in this world there will either be attempts to mass produce that item or, in the absence of effective reproduction, a willy nilly run to take as many from the wild as possible to make a buck. Unfortunately, attempts to raise geoducks have not been successful so far. Thus smuggling…
The story focuses on law enforcement, state and federal, to bring down smuggling rings that cross national and international borders. The characters are colorful, including the central figure of geoduck poacher Doug Tobin who sidelines as an acclaimed carver and generally jovial charmer, and the cops are dogged but you get the sense that the only consistent loser in this entire farce is nature. The cops are playing a game of whack-a-rat. Put one poacher or geoduck kingpin in jail and another seems to spring back up to take their place satisfying the demand for meat.
What Welch is able to do in Shell Games is humanize both sides of this story. The poachers are not generally evil people and the cops chasing them are facing long odds in being successful. Unlike Hollywood, this conflict is less a clash of titans and more a struggle between longtime neighbors. An undercurrent to the story is that poaching of wildlife began in the Puget Sound as the traditional occupations centering on either logging or salmon declined. One wonders how much illegal activity increases as the ability to earn a living wage through traditional means decreases? It’s not as if career loggers can make a career switch and become software coders overnight.
Economic reality and necessity do not excuse the wanton destruction of wildlife for monetary gain, but it frames the motives of the people involved. While Welch does a good job of exposing the cat and mouse game between poachers, middlemen, and law enforcement he writes very little about the demand or consumption side of the equation. If no one wanted to eat geoducks there would be no large scale poaching because there would not be a price sufficient to take the risk of arrest. The same is true for elephant tusks or rhino horn or pangolin meat or whatever wildlife is traded illegally. If this sounds like a weekend talkshow argument about drug policy in the United States…it should. The same economic forces are at work and the stories sound very similar.
The challenge to preserving wildlife from the grasp of economic greed seems insurmountable—witness the recent rise in the number of elephants and rhinos poached in Africa—it behooves us to keep fighting because we only get one shot. There are no mulligans when it comes to species going extinct.
As an aside, why does it seem like every wildlife poaching or smuggling operation exists to satisfy a demand coming from southeast Asia, China in particular? The number of times I read a story where the end product is a powder made from a dried and ground up part of the animal’s body that is said to have curative powers in China is amazing.