By Chuck Goudie
The I-Team investigates a global smuggling network linked to Chicago that is killing animals in the name of luxury art and authorities say is financing terrorism.
It's a multi-billion-dollar problem, agony and ivory. The smuggling of ivory through major shipping hubs like Chicago props up international terrorism and organized crime groups.
The I-Team uncovers how some sellers are getting around new federal rules to curb the ivory trade and doing it in plain sight.
This is the Chicago battlefield in a war on illicit ivory smuggling, a war that starts more than 6,000 miles away on the African Savannah, with poachers taking down elephants for their tusks. At a warehouse near O'Hare International Airport, United States Fish and Wildlife officers train an ivory-sniffing dog to hunt for elephant ivory, much of it on the way to the Far East.
Amanda Dickson/ Wildlife Inspector
"The economy is growing in those countries and the demand for it has really skyrocketed," said wildlife inspector Amanda Dickson. "People have money, it's a status symbol, it's considered good luck."
The problem is so extensive that last fall federal officials organized a massive ivory crush at the federal illegal ivory stockpile in Colorado.
They hope that by destroying all of these statues and trinkets, and imposing tough new rules that make it extremely difficult to legally sell ivory, they can cause the public's appetite to plummet and dropping demand would mean fewer elephants slaughtered.
But for years, federal laws have lacked real enforcement, allowing a shadowy global smuggling network to flourish.
"It's much easier for a criminal to make money off of it, and then if they get caught, it's just a slap on the wrist," Dickson said.
At a recent Chicago inspection, one package stood out to wildlife law enforcement, marked "carved figure."
"This is a piece of ivory that's been carved to look like a skull," said Dickson.
This bizarre skull is from an actual elephant tusk sold on eBay as "faux ivory."
"Lot of times they do call it faux ivory but they know the difference because they're paying much more for it than if it was a piece of plastic," Dickson said.
Searching "faux ivory" on eBay turns up lots of high-priced items: Statues, decorative objects, sometimes offered for thousands of dollars.
Experts tell the I-Team the play on words is often a ploy, disguising real ivory to avoid the new rules against selling it.
"Faux ivory, fake ivories, basically have no value," said Farhad Radfar, MIR Appraisers. "Everyone can see, they sell them for thousands of dollars and people who buy them, they know they're real ivories. They're getting around the law, lying right in the daylight."
They aren't just poachers. Worldwide crime funding can be traced back to profits from illegal ivory sales. A recent human rights report even linked ivory smuggling to North Korea's brutal regime, as one of the rogue state's main profit centers.
"It's facilitating all sorts of illicit activities," said Tom Cardamore, Global Financial Integrity. "Terrorist elements and organized crime use the proceeds of these activities to fund their own illegal activities."
So, Chicago-based federal agents police the problem, box by box.
"If you have too many folks out there hunting these animals, killing these animals, they're not able to reproduce quickly enough, so then what we have then is the extinction of the species," said wildlife inspector Ryan Colburn.
"It's not the whole puzzle but it's one small piece and we're hoping to make some impact," Dickson said.
The Obama administration's new rules against ivory trafficking are so strict, some Chicago auction houses say they are no longer able to sell legitimate antiques. Some of the nation's top art and antique dealers are considering legal action against the government to overturn the ivory ban. Video.