It was a case of smuggle me Elmo at an Arizona border crossing July 1 when officers found two parrots hidden in a large stuffed Sesame Street character. The birds were found alive stuffed into the plush doll after officials at the San Luis port of entry X-rayed the toy, according to a news release from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The birds are conures, medium-sized parrots that are native to South America. -- Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Snowey the cockatoo traveled thousands of miles from Mexico to Texas hidden in a shipment of plastic mailing tubes before ending up in a sanctuary in Benson. He never recovered the movement on his left side after being forced into the tube, or from his fear of people, before he died 18 years later in 2014.

In 2015, traffickers stuffed three conures into Coca-Cola bottles and tried to smuggle them through Nogales. While two survived and now live at the Oasis Sanctuary in Benson, about 40 miles east of Tucson, another suffocated before it could be rescued.

These parrots are among the thousands of wildlife and wildlife products smuggled illegally through the U.S.-Mexico border every year.

In Nogales alone, 1,616 shipments of live animals and animal products were denied entry between 2005 and 2014, earning the designation of a “superhighway” for trafficked wildlife and placing second only to El Paso-Juarez as the most commonly used route in the country, a 2016 report from Defenders of Wildlife found.

While wildlife trafficking is seldom included in discussions of border crackdowns to curb drug trafficking and illegal immigration, some animal products are more highly valued than cocaine, and suspected links exist between animal traffickers and organized crime networks.

“Everything is being funneled through Mexico,” said Alejandra Goyenechea, co-author of the 2016 report and senior international counsel for Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation and research organization based in Washington, D.C. Because wildlife-trafficking routes are similar to the ones used to smuggle other products, she said, “If you address this, you address other types of crime.”

Elephant, stingray, and ostrich skins, as well as sea turtle shells and parrot feathers, regularly turn up in border inspections here, said Phillip Land, assistant special agent for Fish and Wildlife law enforcement in the Southwest.

Out of the U.S.-Mexico ports of entry analyzed in the Defenders of Wildlife report, Nogales ranked first in terms of trafficked dead animals, with about 75,883 pounds of illegal animal parts and products seized there between 2005 and 2014.

“Then there are imports of hunting trophies, so we’ll see unlawful imports of mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, bobcats, mountain lions,” Land said, adding that live parrots and reptiles, destined to be sold as pets, are also common.

Although many wildlife parts are hidden in the thousands of produce and goods shipments that pass through Nogales every month, the ways in which people smuggle wildlife across the border aren’t limited to the trucking industry.

Land said inspectors have found animals — dead and living — hidden in coat pockets, secret compartments of cars and soda bottles.

The business is highly profitable, he said. “Let’s say hypothetically you could buy a parrot for 100 bucks down there, and bring it up here, you can sell it for $500 to $1,000.”

With the fines for smuggling wildlife varying across different state jurisdictions, many smugglers find it worth the risk to try and get wildlife over the border, he said.

In 2009, a man was charged and fined $1,000 in Arizona for smuggling a white-fronted Amazon parrot through Nogales. If he had managed to sell the bird, it could have fetched nearly twice that much, an online search shows.

The federal government has been taking a number of steps to address the issue of trafficking. President Barack Obama signed the End Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016 in October last year, a bill originally introduced by Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Connecticut Sen. Chris Coons. The law aims to increase anti-trafficking and community conservation programs.

However, the current administration has signaled a shift to undo some of these efforts. President Trump announced in November that he is reviewing a decision to lift a ban of the import of trophy elephants, drawing outrage from many animal-rights groups.

How much difference executive orders and bills can make is up for debate. Land said he hasn’t seen a significant decline in smuggled wildlife along the border since Obama’s executive order was passed. “If they’ve got a buyer for it, they’ll try to get it through,” he said.

While most people are familiar with drug smuggling, fewer know about the level of wildlife trafficking going on, which is one of the challenges to stopping the practice, said Tucson-based biologist Cecil Schwalbe.

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“There’s no terrorist wildlife,” said Schwalbe, former state herpetologist for Arizona. “Even if they’re smuggling in a deadly snake from Asia, there’s no fear that it’s going to kill 50 people.”

But Schwalbe, who spent decades working with Fish and Wildlife law enforcement before his retirement, said the extent to which illegal wildlife trade impacts the environment in regions where animals are poached should also cause concern.

“The main thing it does is decimate native populations,” he said. In Southern Arizona, wild populations of Gila monsters and rattlesnakes have been affected as a result of trafficking, since the illegal wildlife trade isn’t limited to a Mexico-U.S. route.

In Mexico, populations of Amazon parrots, one of the most-commonly-trafficked species, decreased from 25 to 90 percent in different parts of the country, according to a 2006 report from Defenders of Wildlife, the most recent data available on the issue. It estimates that about 75 percent of trafficked birds die on their journey to the U.S.

Places such as the Oasis Sanctuary are key for those animals that do survive.

The sanctuary has been working with Fish and Wildlife for the past decade, giving the often-traumatized or injured parrots confiscated all along the border a safe, life-long home, said executive director Janet Trumbule.

Consumers are key to putting a stop to wildlife trafficking, she said.

“People see these really beautiful, colorful animals that can talk, and don’t educate themselves on the care that bird needs, or where it came from,” said Trumbule.

“These exotic animals,” she said, birds or otherwise, “aren’t supposed to be kept in a home.”

Emily Ellis is a journalism student at the University of Arizona and an apprentice at the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her at