Last month, 7,500 endangered turtles headed for Chinese dinner tables were intercepted in Hong Kong; more than 3,000 of them died in transit.
"The conditions that the turtles have been illegally smuggled in were pretty horrific. They were piled one upon the other. Many of the lower layers turtles were crushed," said Dr. Gary Ades of Fauna Conservation.
In another case, authorities kept nearly-extinct Madagascar tortoises and rare komodo dragons off the U.S. black market, where they would have brought $30,000 each. The smuggling ringleader was sentenced last summer to six years in jail.
"The problem is very big. Wildlife smuggling is second only to drugs," explained U.S. Fish and Wildlife Inspector Mike Osborn.
And nine out of 10 exotic animals taken don't survive — especially those worth more dead than alive, says Osborn.
Asked how many animals died for that, Osbron said, "In this particular load, 15 to 20 elephants died."
Two men have been convicted in the ivory smuggling case so far, but it doesn't stop there.
Tiger skeletons are ground up for medicine, lizards are sometimes sold as food.
In South America, it's exotic birds for sale. In the U.S., they bring big money. A scarlet macaw was intercepted and now has a home at the Miami Zoo.
"You could go into a rain forest and pay $20 for this bird and come back here and sell for 2-, 3-, $4,000," said Miami Zoo curator Ron Magill.
It's not that U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspectors aren't looking, even legal shipments are checked. The problem is too few inspectors — there are just 95 nationwide for the nearly 110,000 known shipments coming t America annually and a border too big to patrol.
Smugglers try every trick.
"We've seen fish smuggled in gas tanks of vehicles and reptiles wrapped around and taped to their bodies," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspector Scott Serena.
But nowhere is the problem more visible than just south of the border, at the tiny Tijuana Public Zoo.
There you'll find a menagerie of 300 exotic animals that didn't exist seven years ago. Investigators needed a place to house contraband creatures — squawking, slithering survivors of the smugglers trade.
©MMII, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved