Vast, wildlife-rich and staffed by only 13 in-the-field conservation officers, the Yukon is a perfect target for organized wildlife smuggling, says Michael O’Sullivan, director of the Humane Society of Canada.
Each day, float planes could be clandestinely crossing the Canadian border, landing in remote areas and whisking out anything from sheep to falcons to bear parts without anybody knowing.
“These things could definitely be going on,” said Tony Grabowski, manager of enforcement and compliance with the Yukon conservation officer services.
The international market for smuggled wildlife is booming, with worldwide sales running anywhere from US$10 billion to $20 billion annually, making it the biggest moneymaker for organized crime after drugs, according to Interpol, the France-based international law enforcement network.
Smugglers have been apprehended with endangered bird eggs shoved into bras, hollowed-out teddy bears stuffed with endangered reptiles and hummingbirds jammed into cigarette packages.
In 2002, a man was arrested at Los Angeles’ LAX airport after two large birds of paradise came flying out of his luggage at security. Two pygmy monkeys were found stuffed in his pants.
Several species of Yukon wildlife are at risk of falling into smugglers’ cross hairs.
The territory’s gyrfalcons have long been prized by Middle Eastern falconers, fetching up to $100,000 apiece in the United Arab Emirates, report UN officials.
Already, sheep poachers have been known to cross the Alaska border by float plane into Kluane National Park.
“Poaching, especially of Dall’s sheep, is troublesome,” said a December 2007 report on Kluane National Park by the United Nations Environment Program.
Bear bile has long been a key ingredient in Chinese medicine, encouraging poachers to pursue the mammals.
A single bladder can fetch up to $10,000 in China or Korea, some experts estimate.
In 1989, Jay Ahn was apprehended outside Teslin with 58 gall bladders in the trunk of his car.
Just recently, a bear was found half-buried in a Haines Junction gravel pit, with its paws and gall bladder removed.
The Yukon’s storied “larger than life” expanses remain its Achilles heel when it comes to stopping poachers.
“Some of our more serious offences occur in remote areas, and those are the furthest away from communities where you don’t have people on the land even,” said Grabowski.
They are also the most wildlife-rich.
Nevertheless, “severe,” or organized poaching has been extremely rare in the Yukon, said Grabowski.
Scofflaws and border violations—not organized smuggling networks—remain the biggest enemies of Yukon wildlife, he said.
When Grabowski started out as a conservation officer at Fort St. John in 1974, roads and forests were practically littered with illegally hunted animals.
“There was a point where I would have 30 open files on animals that were shot and left, or shot out of season with just the hindquarters taken,” said Grabowski.
“The harder I worked, the worse things seemed to be,” he said.
Part of the problem was a lack of legal penalties for severe wildlife violations.
Grabowski remembered one instance when they stepped onto the property of a man suspected of poaching two deer. The officers were greeted with initial hostility, until the man found out that the maximum penalty for a poached deer was $100.
Relieved, the man welcomed in the officers and even showed them to the deer in the freezer.
“He said, ‘I thought you were going to take my wife and my kids and my farm and my house, everything—hundred bucks? That’s nothing,’” said Grabowski.
The current Wildlife Act, passed in 2001, sharpened the teeth of conservation officers, doubling penalties, in some cases.
“The courts are starting to realize that wildlife offences and fisheries offences are serious,” said Grabowski.
Jail time for serious wildlife offences, while rare in the Yukon, has become much more common in BC and Alberta.
Ultimately, with only the equivalent of one conservation officer for each 24,000 square kilometres, public vigilance is all that protects Yukon wildlife from the clutches of any would-be wildlife smuggling ring.
“Just as with any law-enforcement organization,” conservation officers rely heavily on the public to bring wildlife offenders to justice, said Grabowski.
“If they don’t supply us with this information through our Turn-In-Poachers program or otherwise, sometimes we’re the last to hear about something going on, because that’s just the way it is,” he said.
Overall, Grabowski remains optimistic about the changing public view of conservation—a far cry from his days in the poach-happy wilds of Fort St. John.
“Folks like myself that are … looking at the tail end of our careers, we’re leaving things in pretty darn good shape compared to what they were when I started,” said Grabowski.
“The state of our wildlife populations today is probably as good as it’s been ever,” he said.
However, it only takes one bad apple to cause an environmental calamity.
Idalecio Mota, charged in 1987, remains one of the territory’s most notorious poachers. Mota was known to indiscriminately gun down eagles, sheep and goats within the course of a few hours.
“He had no regard for seasons, I don’t know what his motivation was,” said Grabowski.
Recently, a poacher was apprehended outside Fort McMurray, Alberta, for illegally shooting a moose and selling the meat.
“He was poaching in an area that, not too many years earlier, was overrun with moose,” said Grabowski.
Now, biologists haven’t been able to spot a single moose in the area.
Wildlife smuggling, if allowed to develop, can easily branch into other areas, said Interpol.
“Once they develop a pipeline that is successful, they will smuggle other contraband such as weapons, drugs and everything you can think of until the pipeline doesn’t work anymore,” said O’Sullivan.
If you know of a wildlife violation, call the Turn-In-Poachers hotline at 1-800-661-0525.
Contact Tristin Hopper at