An exclusive KIRO 7 Investigation uncovers stunning proof of animals being killed illegally to sell their parts for profit.
South Sound reporter Richard Thompson shows how state Fish and Wildlife detectives caught criminals out to make a buck, even if it meant wiping out wildlife critical to the Northwest way of life.
He found bald eagle heads turned into rattles.
Bear gall bladders sold for medicine.
And even an entire cougar delivered right to the back door of a restaurant.
There are criminals in Washington illegally killing animals every day and selling their meat and body parts on the black market. It could threaten entire species.
To try to stop the criminals, undercover state Fish and Wildlife detectives set up shop on the Internet.
WARNING, GRAPHIC: Images of slaughtered wildlife, parts
It looks like a regular website called Best of Wild, advertising exotic meats and wildlife items.
But the site was created and run by state Fish and Wildlife detectives who soon started luring in criminals.
“They weren’t interested in what was on the website. They were interested in what was not on the website,” said Fish and Wildlife Sergeant Mike Hobbs.
Undercover detectives say people contacted them wanting to illegally buy and sell everything from bears, cougars, elk and eagles, with no concern about wiping out the animals.
“For them, it’s not a living animal, it’s a way to make a buck,” said Hobbs.
Like a restaurant owner from eastern Washington who is charged with buying dozens of bear gall bladders for as much as $175 each.
Investigators believe he was shipping some of them to Hong Kong and China, where bear galls are used as a cure-all medicine.
“They’ll dry the galls, mince it down into a powder and sometimes sprinkle it in tea,” said Hobbs.
Detectives say the man also bought other parts from undercover officers like bear meat, bear paws -- which can be made into soup -- and even bear penis.
“Some of that we think entered restaurants,” said Hobbs.
Detectives say they also delivered a cougar to the man's restaurant. He allegedly paid $350 for the big cat seen in undercover video. It was wrapped in a tarp and delivered into the back room of the restaurant.
“We suspect it was cut up and prepared for service in the restaurant,” said Hobbs.
Thompson went to that restaurant, showed the operators the video and asked about the cougar.
“Did you serve this cougar to your customers?” asked Thompson.
She said no, but wouldn’t say what happened to the big cat.
Customers fear the worst.
“I would say we were eating it – really, no kidding,” said customer Ravenna Taylor.
“They can tell us anything, but that meat is being served, I’m sure,” said customer Barbara Palm.
But the investigation didn't stop there. Undercover detectives also made contact with an unlicensed taxidermist in Skagit County.
Video allegedly shows him illegally selling bear claws and bear teeth.
Detectives said the video also shows him taking a bald eagle and golden eagle from undercover officers, and officers say he turned those birds, which are illegal to possess, into ceremonial staffs with the eagles’ heads made into rattles.
The taxidermist who allegedly charged $200 for the work refused to speak with KIRO.
Thompson showed the video to people at Eagle Fest on the Skagit River where thousands come to see wintering bald eagles every year.
They were appalled by the apparent illegal trafficking in the symbol of our nation.
“I think it’s disgusting. All our children and grandchildren won’t get to enjoy these eagles,” said eagle watcher Susie Ormbrek.
During the nearly two-year investigation, detectives identified 75 suspects, including one man who was allegedly selling poached elk from the back of his pickup truck littered with trash.
And another man officers say had his Tacoma garage floor filled with elk for sale on the black market.
Felony charges for illegally trafficking wildlife will soon be filed against many of the suspects, but investigators know they've just made a small dent in a massive problem.
“I would venture to say we just barely touched the top of the iceberg,” said Hobbs.
Undercover officers plan to target illegal wildlife traffickers again, but say it’s difficult without additional resources. They only have seven detectives covering the entire state.
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