Photograph by Chris Mattison, Minden Pictures
Read Caption

Undercover investigators with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posed as taxidermists to help stop illegal hunts of torrent ducks in Peru.

Photograph by Chris Mattison, Minden Pictures

How fake taxidermists brought down illegal bird traders

A three-year U.S. undercover investigation has led to multiple prosecutions for transcontinental smuggling of dead birds.

The dead birds were traded like baseball cards, with collectors establishing a clear pecking order: A batch of North American waterfowl could be had for an extinct passenger pigeon. A dozen birds—most protected under national law or international treaty—could be bartered for one threatened owl. Sometimes bird carcasses were bought for cash.

And when American collectors wanted to kill threatened birds in the wild, one Peru-based safari company, Andes Safari Peru, was willing to help them out—facilitating hunts of torrent duck, ibis, and dozens of other birds.

Court documents recently filed against one of the operators of that company, and earlier filings against multiple customers involved in illegal hunts, trades, and sales of endangered or protected species of birds, make clear that this underground market in bird trophies first became the subject of an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation in 2011. The Fish and Wildlife Service is the nation’s agency responsible for monitoring trade in wild animals and plants.

Timothy Santel, who directs the Special Investigations Unit at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, says the network of illegal traders may involve hundreds of people but that the ongoing investigation, named Operation Journey, has been focused on a small number of core individuals.

“Hunters involved came with lists of things they wanted to kill—providing a list ahead of time saying, ‘When I get down there, this is what I want to kill or want you to kill and have ready for me,’” Santel says. “This is not hunting.”

Some collectors were prolific: One Alaska man who solicited Andes Safari Peru’s services accrued some 5,000 mounted birds—many of which he had taxidermied himself.

To date, at least four Americans involved in the bird trade have been prosecuted. Penalties imposed ranged from one day of prison (with credit given for time already served) along with a $20,000 fine to a lower fine of $1,000 and forfeiture of their birds. Prosecutions are still being pursued, but the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to provide more specifics because the operation is ongoing.

One of the people who helped facilitate the illegal hunts in Peru, Kathia "Kathy" Chavez, was scheduled to be sentenced in Gainesville, Florida on February 25, but that hearing was postponed early this morning, according to her lawyer. Chavez, who had been extradited in December from imprisonment in Peru, was found guilty of crimes that include conspiracy to smuggle wildlife, false statements, and conspiracy to commit violations of the Lacey Act. The act makes it illegal to import wildlife taken in violation of underlying foreign law. Chavez’s lawyer, David Magilligan, declined to comment.

View Images

Bird traders illegally swapped multiple North American waterfowl for an extinct passenger pigeon like this one, according to court documents.

According to court documents filed on February 6 with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Gainesville Division, “Chavez, although unfamiliar with the hunting regulations in Peru, acted in reckless disregard and with willful ignorance of the fact that birds were being killed and collected unlawfully, including protected and endangered species.” Moreover, “she acted in reckless disregard and with willful ignorance of the fact that documents being prepared and delivered” to clients would allow fraudulent export of birds.

Chavez ran Andes Safari Peru along with her former romantic and business partner, Gonzalo Palacios Paredes, according to court documents. The company organized hunting trips to kill protected birds. According to court filings, Chavez, who is fluent in English, “translated and drafted emails, and facilitated face-to-face conversations with U.S. hunters.” Paredes, the documents allege, was involved in the actual hunts or killing of the birds. He has been charged but not yet extradited from Peru. Court documents reviewed by National Geographic did not list a lawyer for Paredes.

To gain entry into the tightly knit world of bird traders, several undercover federal agents with the Fish and Wildlife Service posed as novice taxidermists. They first attended the World Taxidermy Championships—essentially the Super Bowl for animal preservation—in 2011 to identify and ingratiate themselves with a small group of top taxidermists known by the service to be importing and exporting protected birds. These same individuals often illegally killed, traded, or bought birds as well, according to the service.

Three and a half years of undercover work followed, including various hunting trips as well as countless phone calls and visits to maintain the facade of friendship. To gain credibility in bird smuggling circles, agents learned from taxidermists how to kill and mount various species and even competed in some state shows, according to one member of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s special investigations unit. He spoke on condition of anonymity since he is involved in ongoing cases.

View Images

These taxidermied masked ducks were seized as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Operation Journey.

These friendships proved essential to building a case against the bird traders, he says. Once he and his colleagues had gained access to those circles, hunters and collectors talked openly about their illegal activities and how they circumvented the law to illegally import the birds, he says. Gaining the trust of one person would often lead to an introduction to another, and so on, the agent explains.

Heinrich “Henry” Springer, the Alaska-based collector with 5,000 birds, is now deceased. He pleaded guilty in 2017 to smuggling bird carcasses into the U.S. As federal court documents note, Springer, who was affiliated with the University of Alaska, engaged in activities that included inappropriately using his university museum permit to import protected birds.

The undercover Fish and Wildlife Service agent says he knew nothing about taxidermy before he began working on Operation Journey eight years ago. Since then, he’s spent many days learning how to prepare and mount a bird. “There are a lot of hours I’ll never get back,” he says.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.