While Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport sees nearly 5.7 million passengers each year, it also serves as a hub for huge volumes of cargo that pass through enroute to the Lower 48 or Asia. Anchorage is the fourth largest cargo hub in the world and finishes second for landed weight of cargo in the United States. 

However, not all the goods coming through the airport are legal, and many of those banned imports and exports involve fish and wildlife shipments. Whether they’re identifying illegally trafficked black-market goods or illicit one-off souvenirs, wildlife inspectors with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service remain the guardians enforcing laws against a criminal enterprise that threatens over a million species worldwide and generates between seven to 23 billion dollars annually. 

Wildlife inspector holds walrus skull with tusks
Christopher Andrews, a wildlife inspector with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with confiscated raw walrus ivory and sea otter pelts. Photo by Donna Dewhurst

Anchorage is one of 18 designated ports in the U.S. that most commercial wildlife shipments must pass through, and America makes up about 20 percent of the global market for wildlife products, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. These wildlife products range from live animals (exotic reptiles, tropical fish, and birds), to raw materials (ivory, feathers, bone, meat), to manufactured products (clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, Asian medicinals). In 2019, a United Nations’ task force forecasted that this rate of wildlife exploitation could result in a loss of a million species during this century. The catastrophic elephant ivory market comes to mind, but that’s just the beginning of the story.     

Wildlife inspectors work on the frontlines at the Anchorage airport cargo facilities, international passenger terminal, dock warehouses, and the U.S. border check station at Beaver Creek on the Alaska Highway. Beyond their federal law enforcement expertise, these inspectors also excel as biologists, detectives, and educators. And not all of them are humans. One of the best-known inspectors is a black Labrador retriever named Dock who was rescued from an animal shelter and trained to sniff out wildlife scents, running the gambit of targeted illegal wildlife traffic. On the surface, Dock looks like everyone’s favorite family pet, but his aptitude for identifying contraband buried inside packing materials such as metal, wood, glass, and within sealed suitcases or concealed with coffee grounds and other highly fragrant materials makes him invaluable. He’s also efficient: Dock can check a belt full of international travelers’ suitcases in a fraction of the time it would take for his human counterparts to physically open and inspect each bag. Likewise, it takes Dock mere minutes to search the entire contents of a Boeing 747 cargo plane, alerting his handler to any suspected contents. One of his most famous accomplishments was intercepting a large shipment of shark fins, which had been cultivated from several unique protected species and illegally shipped on an express carrier from Central America to Asia.

While illegal trade remains prevalent, innocent mistakes also happen, made by vacation travelers unaware of rules and regulations regarding banned items. For travelers coming to Alaska in 2022, the rules vary depending on the mode of transportation and border crossing location. Driving to Alaska from the Lower 48 subjects travelers to at least two border crossings with Canada. Some items, such as products made from whale bone, may require special permits for transport through Canada, while others are banned entirely, such as whale baleen and products made from sea otters.

If you travel by air or are mailing souvenirs home, be aware that some items are illegal to possess in the United States. While elephant ivory products have been banned in the U.S. since 2010, walrus ivory and baleen whale products may be legally purchased and possessed, as long as they are authentic Alaska Native handicrafts. These handicrafts must be “altered,” meaning carved or scrimshawed for artistic purposes, and most will have the “Silver Hand” symbol with the words “Authentic Native Handicraft from Alaska” on them. Raw walrus ivory or raw whale baleen can only be legally possessed by Alaska Native people. Many gift shop owners educate themselves on federal and state wildlife laws to help conserve Alaska’s wildlife and to inform unsuspecting tourists about traveling with their wildlife souvenirs. Ultimately though, the responsibility rests with both foreign and domestic buyers to know the legality of their purchases. 

Wildlife inspector and dog search luggage at an airport in Alaska
Wildlife Inspectors Dock and Chad Hornbaker inspect luggage at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Photo by Donna Dewhurst.

While Anchorage-based Alaska wildlife inspectors watch for baleen and walrus ivory, they also battle to stop global exploitation of the roughly 6,000 species of protected animals and 33,000 plants. This includes live smuggling, as well as animal and plant-based byproducts. Wildlife inspector Chris Andrews, a 25-year industry veteran, says that he does the work out of dedication to wildlife conservation. He believes that controlling the black market for these illegal products is essential for reducing the incentive for capturing and/or killing these threatened and endangered species worldwide. During his tenure as an inspector, Andrews says he’s encountered lethal pit vipers from Southeast Asia and monitor lizards from the Philippines, as well as live monkeys and birds. He found the monitor lizards hidden inside pairs of socks within the back panels of audio speakers, while other animals have been concealed in everything from hats to cigarette packages to hair curlers.   

In Alaska, the most frequently confiscated items include raw walrus ivory, raw whale baleen, or the illegal use of marine mammal fur and/or migratory bird feathers, especially those of bald and golden eagles. Picturing an Alaska devoid of sea otters, whales, eagles, or walrus brings home the importance of wildlife inspectors and their essential work saving the treasures of the Last Frontier and beyond.

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