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PREYING ON BIRDS OF PREY
For three years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and wildlife agencies in Canada conducted a secret "sting" operation into suspected illegal trafficking in endangered peregrine falcons and other raptors. Two weeks ago the operation bore fruit with the arrest of 29 people in the U.S. and three in Canada. And those in the know say the investigation isn't over; they expect the number of arrests to reach 80 or more. According to authorities, the birds were taken from the wild and sold through go-betweens to customers in Europe and the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where peregrines are prized possessions. They said that a falcon that initially brought from $5,000 to $10,000 in the U.S. could command up to $130,000 from Saudi purchasers.
"They were taking the birds from the wild and trading them through French and German middlemen simply because in Saudi Arabia the sheiks like to fly falcons," says Donald Carr, chief of the Wildlife and Marine Resources section of the U.S. Justice Department, which worked with Fish and Wildlife in the sting. "We've arrested people in 14 states and we seized somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 birds, most of which were protected. We took one small plane and several trucks. The defendants were all over the lot. We have some very respectable doctors and others who, when they were arrested, had dope and counterfeit money on them."
Conservationists contend that illegal trafficking in falcons was abetted by Interior Secretary James Watt's decision last year to have the Fish and Wildlife Service relax regulations forbidding the sale of raptors bred in captivity. That action, they say, encouraged unscrupulous falconers to pass off wild birds as captive-bred.
Authorities estimate that as many as 500 raptors were taken from the wild during the three-year sting operation, including perhaps 100 of the U.S.'s 500 known wild peregrines. Moreover, Amos Eno, director of wildlife for the Audubon Society, says there was at least a 50% mortality rate among the birds taken. "The birds Fish and Wildlife found are in absolutely deplorable condition," Eno said. "They had rickets and couldn't stand up. Only one of them was in decent condition. Those guys were turning them over so fast they didn't give a damn."
Eno, whose organization is lobbying to rescind last year's easing of restrictions on captive-bred raptor sales, also points out that $14 million in federal funds has been spent over the past decade to save the peregrines, an expenditure of tax dollars that "has been neutralized by these badniks."
Because his team didn't make the USFL playoffs, Dan Ross, a tight end who played for the Cincinnati Bengals last year and then joined the USFL's New Orleans Breakers, has finally been getting a well-earned rest. One of more than 40 NFL-jumpers who began playing in the new league almost immediately, Ross had participated in 38 professional football games in 46 weeks, including exhibitions.
"It was a grind," he says. "I think I'm the only guy to come over from the NFL who played all the games. Most of the others were hurt." In fact, there were at least a few other NFL-jumpers who lasted the whole USFL season.
Asked about differences between the two leagues, Ross says, "The size of the linemen. The NFL's are a lot bigger, taller, heavier. And the defensive backs are better in the NFL. But our head coach at New Orleans, Dick Coury, was a lot easier to understand. His plays were simple—and he handled people nicely. I think he's a hell of a guy.