I’m holding $20,000 worth of camera equipment. I’m standing on the pick-up curb at Denver International Airport. There’s a car and driver waiting for me. I’m not getting in. I’m wide-eyed with panic because I’m hearing my mother in my head.
“Don’t talk to strangers,” she’s saying with worry wrinkles around her eyes. “And certainly don’t get in their cars. Not even for candy.”
Talking to and getting in are what I do on a daily basis. When I’m on assignment, I have to develop instant rapport with strange people in strange places. For a girl who grew up painfully shy, this is a taxing development later in life, but I do it. Daily.
The reason I hear my mother during this particular pick-up, is because of what I see on the driver and in his backseat. He’s packing heat and his car is packed with survival supplies. It’s not as shocking as the cabbie who picked me up in the South Carolina swamps with no shoes on and his pants undone, but it’s alarming nonetheless.
“Welcome to Denver,” says my Colorado contact. “We’ve got a bit of a drive and only a few hours to get this done so what are you waiting for?”
I’m waiting for reassurance. I look him up and down. He’s fit, but I run far. Drive me out to the boonies for shenanigans with backseat supplies and I’ll make a mad dash back to the city. Endurance trail running for 100ks isn’t just for exercise. Mental plan in place, I get in the car. My driver is a federal agent. He’s supposed to be the good guy anyway. That’s the other reason I get in his car.
EarthFix, a division of PBS, commissioned me to do a story on illegal eagle trade and the project led me here, to the National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repository, outside of Denver, Colorado. That’s where U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stores evidence from trafficking cases after the judicial proceedings conclude and that’s where my driver is taking me. He talks about hard-to-trace cases on the drive.
“Making a wildlife case is extremely difficult,” says Dan Rolince, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement supervisor. “Typically the victim does not have the opportunity to call you and tell you something happened.”
We arrive at the warehouse and all worry over becoming Dan’s next victim is forgotten when I enter the building. I’m surrounded by dead animals. It’s overwhelming and my eyes can’t fix on any one item: Elephant feet here. Tiger heads there. Eagles on high shelves. Seahorses on lower. The collection is massive and gruesome, the effects of wildlife trafficking. I can’t help but gape jaw-dropped for a moment before clearing my head and rolling my video camera.
I look around via lens: Snake wine. Antelope scarves. And bins and bins of elephant tusk, crushed as if Grandma’s china cabinet fell on its side. But the ivory didn’t arrive at the warehouse like this—FWS destroyed it. In 2013, the service pummeled six tons of it, with an industrial rock crusher, and now the bins join the repository’s more than one-million-piece evidence collection.
“It was crushed as a statement that the trafficking of elephant ivory was no longer going to be tolerated,” says Coleen Schaefer, who directs the repository. “We eliminated the value…in order to stem poaching.”
The repository opened in the 1980s, and some items have been here since the beginning, but the collection continues to grow. Coolers filled with eagles show up the day I arrive. After bald and golden eagles—dead of natural causes or killed illegally—arrive, FWS distributes the feathers, talons, wings, and other parts to Native American tribes, who use them for ceremonies and religious services. While the eagles are repurposed, almost nothing else leaves the shelves of this museum-like warehouse.
“Most of what we have is illegal, in one form or another,” Coleen says. “Sometimes I can remove myself from looking at all that, but when I give a tour and we talk about specific pieces, it’s devastating. Wildlife has been reduced, in some cases, to something that is completely whimsical.”
Two hours later I finish filming and wander the aisles without working, fixated on the strange spectacles that once roamed the wild. The collection is the result of 200 agents working wildlife cases nationwide with an additional two hundred inspectors at ports of entry into the U.S.
I come upon items made from animals that inhabit the West, my longtime home: eagle talons, elk antlers, deer hides. I hate seeing them here in this condition, crowded on these shelves, far removed from their natural state. I hate they were illegally traded. But at least this is not my first impression of them: I’ve seen these creatures alive and in abundance in the wild.
But I haven’t seen a wild elephant in person, and I’m drawn to the section that houses their remains. Their huge feet double as flowerpots, footrests, and wastebaskets. There’s a pile of elephant-hair bracelets and a stack of hides. Among the stash, I spot two tusks, carved delicately into the shapes of a man and a woman, leaning lovingly toward each other. How hands of such harm can create such beauty escapes me.
I study the intricate carvings closely then notice what is propped on the wall behind them: a large elephant skin cut into the shape of Africa. Across it, it bears a painting of an elephant in motion, its ears fanned widely. I would find such a sight in the wild amazing, and I hope to witness it one day—but, staring at an animal painted on its own skin, I fear I may never have the opportunity. That’s a painful realization, but this is the reality of wildlife trafficking, packed into this repository, in a warehouse outside Denver.
“Although there are always more cases to be made I firmly believe the emphasis we’re placing on large scale trafficking is having a positive effect,” Dan says. “That’s why we have to get out there…and just keep digging.”
Through my now warehouse weary eyes, Rolince is a hero. I don’t hesitate to ride with him back to the airport because I’m more worried about the poachers he’s after than him. A warehouse full of atrocities changes your perspective just that fast.
Behind the scenes:
The freaky side of federal agent Dan Rolince doesn’t exist. Turns out the survival supplies in the backseat of his car are always with him because he’s prepared for anything. That’s just his nature. Kris, also of the obsessively prepared variety, relates well to the organized tendencies of Dan.