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The Ins & Outs of Exotic Animal Smuggling

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This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are the details.

by Ethan Trex

Earlier this week, airport authorities in Wellington, New Zealand, caught a smuggler as he tried to slip onto a flight. The German citizen wasn't smuggling drugs, guns, or cash, though. His cargo was a bit more alive: 44 endangered skinks and geckos, all stuffed into his underwear. Why would anyone want to stuff reptiles into his underwear? Because there's serious dough in it; the geckos would have been worth $2,800 apiece to European collectors.

Although this sort of smuggling job sounds bizarre, the truly shocking thing is how common such arrests are. It doesn't get the same publicity as illicit drugs or weapons, but the illegal wildlife trade has quietly become one of the world's biggest black markets. Here's a look at how it works.

Just how big is the international animal racket?

The black market for wildlife is second only to the illegal drug business in size. It's currently estimated to be worth more than $20 billion. Yes, that's billion with a "b." And it's not just elephant tusks that are changing hands under the table. For every type of endangered species out there, there's an eager collector waiting to shell out a lot of cash. For example, a pair of Queen Alexandra's Birdwings—the world's largest butterflies, with wingspans of up to 14 inches—sells for about $10,000. A baby chimpanzee goes for as much as $50,000. But the black market isn't just for cute critters. In March 2009, New York officials broke up a huge smuggling ring that specialized in snapping turtles, rattlesnakes, and salamanders.

Why are so many criminals getting into wildlife smuggling?

In addition to being extremely profitable, it's pretty difficult to get caught smuggling endangered animals.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is staffed with fewer than 400 law enforcement agents; by comparison, the Drug Enforcement Agency has 11,000 employees. And if you do get nabbed, the punishments are much less severe than in the drug trade. Let's say you're a narcotics dealer, and officials find you with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of heroin. Even if it's your first offense, you could face a minimum of 10 years in prison, and you'll be a convicted felon. But if you're an animal smuggler with no prior convictions and you get caught with an equivalent cache of illegal butterflies, you might not even spend the night in jail. And if you're a repeat offender, the consequences still aren't so bad. When Hisayoshi Kojima, the world's most wanted butterfly thief, pleaded guilty to 17 smuggling-related charges in 2007, he received 21 months in prison and a fine of just under $39,000. Such low-risk, high-reward conditions have led many drug traffickers to diversify into the wildlife business.

But what's so bad about dealing butterflies?

Many scientists believe that the illegal wildlife trade exacerbates one of the gravest problems facing mankind: the mass extinction of species. Biologists like Harvard's E.O. Wilson predict that half of all plant and animal species will be extinct by 2100, and that could mean dire consequences for humanity. Plants and animals pollinate our crops, filter our water, regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, help decompose waste, and lead scientists to new medical breakthroughs—all free of charge. Each time a species goes extinct, we lose one of these unpaid workers. And because wildlife smugglers tend to target the species that are already the most vulnerable, they're speeding up the rate at which we're losing plants and animals.

Who's buying this stuff?

socksThis is the question that keeps wildlife agents up at night. Although officials have scored some major coups breaking up smuggling rings, the traffickers often refuse to reveal their buyers, which makes it tough to figure out what motivates them. Consider the example of a Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard, which can grow up to 10 feet long and has a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. It's venomous, and its saliva contains virulent bacteria. Who would want to buy that? Yet, Komodo dragons fetch more than $30,000 on the black market.

Part of the answer may lie in the psychology of collectors. Whether they're amassing baseball cards or Beanie Babies, most of them start by gathering the common items and then build to the more unusual ones. Eventually, they start seeking out the things that are truly rare. As author Bryan Christy put it in his book The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers, reptile collectors tend to follow a common progression. First, they get bigger species, then meaner ones, then unusual ones, and, finally, illegal species, which are also frequently venomous.

In truth, the animals that wind up living in some collector's menagerie are the lucky ones. Many trafficked animals and insects are sacrificed to dinner plates and medicine cabinets. In China, turtles are often turned into turtle soup or ground into aphrodisiac powder. Other animals are killed so that smugglers can harvest a certain organ or body part. In a number of Asian cultures, bear paws are thought to impart strength and virility, and their gallbladders are used to treat everything from cancer to hemorrhoids. A single bear gallbladder can fetch thousands of dollars. And as we all know from the Indiana Jones movies, the practice of eating monkey brains is still alive and well in many parts of the world; in the United States, though, monkeys are usually smuggled in to be pets.

So how do you smuggle a monkey through an airport?

In your pants, of course! But the trick doesn't always work. Just ask the guy who tried to smuggle two pygmy monkeys into Los Angeles in 2002. Upon landing at LAX, his brilliant plan was to discreetly stuff them into his underwear as he went through the airport. But his traveling companion blew their cover in customs, when several birds of paradise burst out of his suitcase and flew around the terminal. More recently, a smuggler was caught hiding a monkey under his hat on a flight to Peru, and another female smuggler was caught strapping a monkey to her belly and pretending she was pregnant on her way from Thailand.

For some reason, stuffing animals in one's trousers is a favorite tactic among smugglers. In 1995, two men were arrested at the Mexican border after customs officials noticed that the bulges in their pants were moving. It turns out that the slithering bumps were actually pantyhose filled with more than a dozen snakes.

Even when traffickers get caught, the stories rarely end well for the animals. Because they've been pulled from their normal habitats and potentially exposed to all sorts of diseases, stolen animals can't simply go home. Instead, they end up quarantined in zoos or in wildlife refuges. And while that isn't the worst fate that can befall an animal, it does nothing for the survival of the species in the wild. From a conservation standpoint, sneaking an animal out of its habitat really isn't any different from shooting it for its hide.

How Much for that
Baby Gorilla
in the Window?

Wondering if you got a good price on that creature in your basement? Here's what the world's hottest endangered species are going for these days.

Hyacinth Macaws

Native to: South America
Price: up to $20,000
Why they're so hot right now: This parrot's large size and beautiful blue feathers have made it a favorite among collectors. The poaching of macaws has devastated wild populations and driven up prices, which makes them even more popular.

Chimpanzees and Gorillas

Native to: Central Africa
Price: more than $50,000 for babies
Why they're so hot right now: Because they're cute when they're little.

Sperm Whales

Native to: the world's oceans
Price: up to several hundred dollars per pound; one whole whale could cost you a few million. Also, one sperm whale tooth can run you $500.
Why they're so hot right now: If you thought hunting for Moby Dick went out with Herman Melville, think again. Although the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, whale sushi is still a delicacy in Japan, and the teeth continue to be carved and sold as knickknacks.

Ploughshare Tortoises

Native to: Madagascar
Price: upwards of $30,000
Why they're so hot right now: Because they might not be around much longer. With fewer than 1,000 ploughshares left in the wild, they're some of the world's most endangered animals.

Oenpelli Pythons

Native to: Australia
Price: $30,000
Why they're so hot right now: This large python can change colors like a chameleon, shifting from dark brown during the day to pale silver at night.

Chinese Alligators

Native to: the lower Yangtze River
Price: $15,000
Why they're so hot right now: In 1999, commercial developments destroyed the alligators' habitat to such an extent that, today, only about 130 survive in the wild. Rarity like that lures the collectors.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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