The Caviar Kings

Plants & Animals / by Simon Cooper /

Inside the cartels that built empires and destroyed species.

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The skeleton looks like that of a child. Its small, delicate white bones are hunched slightly forward, the hands hanging loose, the naked sockets of its naked skull looking down from the shelf where it stands. The skeleton turns out to be that of a young chimpanzee. Next to it is a severed elephant’s foot someone tried to make into a footstool. There are several freezedried Hawksbill turtles, delicate, birdlike, with black-glass button eyes, as well as numerous stuffed jungle cats.

There are ordinary looking office cabinets, but instead of being filled with stationery or files or paper for the photocopier, they contain animal pelts—a snow leopard’s skin worth $25,000; cheetah, jaguar, panther pelts. Dozens of them. There are drawers full of alligator, crocodile, and cayman skins. Under counters there are evidence bags full of belts, shoes and handbags made of the hides of endangered animals.

FWS Special Agent Robert Rothe carefully places a box on a bench inside the room where the chimp skeleton stands
guard. Inside the box is approximately 20 kilos of Panchernikov’s oscetra caviar, worth around $40,000. Rothe pries the box open and lifts out a fat blue tin. There is a thick, orangey-red rubber seal, but it slips off with little difficulty. Rothe opens the tin to reveal glistening, tightly packed eggs that wink under the lights of the room like little gunmetal-gray diamonds. They have a salty, almost metallic smell that rises from the tin. It is the smell of the sea, one of those smells that immediately transports you to the beach, to a rocky outcrop, to the last time you stood facing the water and took in a big breath of briny, ozone-charged air.

Rothe takes the tin, walks over to a sink set against the wall, and turns on the faucet. Half a kilo of caviar slips down the plughole, the little blackened eggs sliding out of the tin, the salt they are preserved in turning the water milky. The eggs float and bob around and then are slowly sucked into the vortex. Twelve hundred dollars worth of caviar goes down the drain in a matter of seconds. The air is full of their aroma.

Rothe opens another tin and slops more caviar down the drain. “This is where it ends,” he says. “This is where ends. Right here.”

Special Agent Ed Grace has been standing in the doorway, watching. “What a waste,” Grace says and walks out of the room.

Somewhere in one of the five countries surrounding the Caspian Sea—Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran—poachers are hauling sturgeon from the water.

A few weeks or months from now, a customer in a caviar bar in New York will sink his little spoon into a mound of beluga or oscetra or sevruga and enjoy a lingering mouthful. As the caviar slips down his throat, he’ll most likely have no idea of the provenance of his amuse bouche. He’ll not know of the agony of the harvest, or the threat of extinction, or the game wardens and policemen murdered by mobsters protecting the poachers. He’ll know nothing of forged permits or fake health certificates. He will not know if the caviar was shipped leaking and hot in the unrefrigerated suitcase of a mule, or if what he is eating is really Russian caviar or the poached caviar of the endangered American paddlefish.

Sturgeon have been on earth for 250 million years. In our ignorance, we may well make this century their last.

From: Edward Grace
To: Simon Cooper
Subject: re: The End
“… what the caviar consumer does not see is the violence, greed, corruption, and death associated with the illegal caviar trade, which resembles the early ’80s, when cocaine was flowing into the United States from South America. You have organized groups in and around the Caspian Sea controlling the caviar harvest, trade, and international distribution by whatever means is required.

I understand that courts and prosecutors in the US need to devote their limited resources to more substantial crimes. Therefore prison time for caviar trafficking may not be as long and fines may not be as severe—but prosecutors have been fighting for prison time, and the courts have been handing down sentences with prison time. And any prison time can serve as a deterrent.

Am I trying to argue that the caviar trade is as bad as drugs and therefore should be punished like drug offenses? No, but I am trying to point out that this is not a victimless crime. Families are being destroyed, and a species that has been around since the age of the dinosaurs could vanish because of nothing more than simple greed.”

The head of the district maritime inspectorate had his car doused with gasoline and set on fire. The perpetrators have yet to be found. Local prosecutors believe it was an act of intimidation. Last year, border guards seized 190 tons of fish and approximately 300 kilograms of black caviar from poachers. The latter, in an effort to continue their illegal business, increasingly move from threat to action. At least 20 tons of poached Azov sturgeon and 500 kilograms of black caviar are sold monthly on just one of the Moscow markets. The price ranges from $10 to $250 per kilogram. Marine products are delivered with forged paperwork. In the past four years, the number of sturgeon in the Sea of Azov has declined from 15 million virtually to zero.—Moscow News

Originally published January 16, 2006

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Tags crime ecology food law

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