They crash through border fences in remote locations, smuggle contraband through airport customs, and disguise illegal shipments with forged documents. They aren't drug smugglers -- although the profit margins are similar. The goods these lawbreakers covet are endangered animals and exotic plants, some driven to or near extinction by their trade. A bill to renew the Endangered Species Act, which is targeted to protecting such wildlife from poaching and environmental hazards, passed the House of Representatives a year ago but languishes in the Senate because several senators have put a hold on the legislation.
``Endangered species are the canary in the coal mine, they are the first indicator that something is wrong,'' says John M. Fitzgerald at Defenders of Wildlife. ``When they start to go, we should pause and think about what it means for ourselves.''
But renewal of the act faces a Senate burdened with other issues. ``Superfund and acid rain have taken over the key environmental legislative agenda,'' says a Senate staff aide, adding that ``most members of Congress think [the act] is trivial.''
James Whittinghill, who helps manage floor activity for Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, indicates that ``unless the concerned senators can agree on a time limit for floor action, the bill probably will not come up for consideration [during this session].''
A threatened filibuster on the Endangered Species Act could force Senator Dole to pull the bill to keep the Senate running smoothly during the crush of activity in the last few weeks of this session.
Sens. Howell Heflin (D) of Alabama, Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, and Steven D. Symms (R) of Idaho readily admit that they have prevented consideration of the bill because of their particular concerns.
Senator Heflin is worried that the listing of Alabama's flattened musk turtle as an endangered species could affect surface coal mining in his state. Pollution from the mining is threatening the turtle's food supply and habitat, but according to Jerry M. Ray on Heflin's staff, the senator is concerned with ``another endangered species -- the coal miner.''
Senator Simpson wants more flexibility under the act to kill problem grizzly bears and wolves that migrate outside of protected areas. Senator Symms wants the Fish and Wildlfe Service to provide enough food within Yellowstone National Park to keep grizzly bears from wandering into areas where logging, mining, recreation, and livestock activities might be affected.
``I think we will get it passed,'' predicts Simpson. ``I am not unwilling to compromise; the hold was simply so the bill wouldn't pass while my staff was negotiating. Assuming his concerns are addressed, the senator plans ``to do everything [he] can to get the bill passed.'' Heflin's and Symms' staff were not so optimistic, but they too are trying to negotiate a compromise.
The Endangered Species Act was originally passed in 1973 to establish a comprehensive program to conserve plant and animal species that are either in danger of extinction (``endangered'') or likely to become endangered (``threatened'').
A species must be listed as endangered or threatened to qualify for the conservation, protection, and recovery provisions of the act. Passage of the bill is strongly supported by environmentalists.
Regardless of the bill's passage, conservationists say they are almost overwhelmed by the problem of species extinction. Some complain that the listing rate by the Fish and Wildlife Service, while improved, is much too slow to catch up with a backlog of more than 3,900 candidate species.
Conservationists worry about the fact that almost 300 species have become extinct while waiting to get on the list. Currently, 913 species have been listed -- 60 were added in 1985 (up from only 4 in 1981). Of the listed species, 410 are native to the United States and only 231 of those have the recovery plans considered necessary to reverse their decline.
The international trade in endangered species takes a tremendous toll. Yet little is known about a smuggling industry that nearly equals the profit margins of the drug trade, according to conservationists.
Earlier this year, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) issued a report that documented for the first time the volume of trade, between $4 billion to $5 billion in live animals and their products. At least 3.5 million live birds alone are traded worldwide. Of the $1 billion estimated US share of this, the WWF estimates that up to one-third may be illegal.
The profit margins offer tremendous incentives. For example, a rare parrot captured in Brazil is sold by a local Indian to the first tier of middlemen for $4 to $5. When it finally reaches a US pet store, it sells for $2,000 to $5,000.
There have been some notable successes in US efforts to slow the illegal trade in endangered species.
Early last month a Saudi prince wrote the US government a check for $150,000 and pledged to halt the royal participation in the illegal international trading of birds of prey (primarily falcons). This occurred after he was caught in ``operation falcon,'' an extensive undercover probe by the Justice Department and the Fish & Wildlife Service into the multimillion-dollar industry of smuggling birds of prey. Over the last five years 61 defendants have been convicted.
In one instance, a French diplomat smuggled six falcons to Dulles airport where they were driven by limousine to New York and given first-class air passage out of the country. The diplomat, Fran,cois Messaoudene, paid a $30,000 civil penalty.
While grateful for the convictions, they represent just the ``tip of the iceberg,'' according to WWF vice-president Kathryn Fuller. ``A thriving, extremely lucrative trade in endangered birds of prey caught in the wild, primarily for falconry, poses serious threats to populations of some of these birds.''
For birds of prey and other species of plants and animals, experts say much remains to be done to ensure their survival.