The government's most macabre collection

Story highlights

  • Government holds illegal wildlife specimens at unique warehouse
  • Pencil holders made from baby rhino hooves, tiger heads are among items
  • Illegal animal trafficking is a multibillion dollar business

(CNN)Not far from Denver's abandoned Stapleton International Airport sits what's probably the saddest, most macabre collection of property owned by the U.S. government.

Officially, it's called the National Wildlife Property Repository.
In reality, it holds thousands of confiscated animal items that Americans and others have tried to illegally import into the United States.
There's shelf after shelf of tiger heads, and even a stuffed tiger fetus.
There are tons of crushed ivory, bizarre and worthless medicines made from illegally poached and imported animals.
There are dozens of ivory horns from elephants. And there are horns from the endangered black rhino.
There's even a baby rhino hoof, made into a pencil holder.
The repository stores the items for teaching and educational purposes, and it destroys anything beyond that. Most of what is confiscated is destroyed.
All the items in the repository are no longer part of any investigation or prosecution.
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Coleen Schaefer, the superintendent, said new items arrive every day and the packed warehouse holds only a fraction of all the items that have been confiscated.
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Nearly every animal on display in the warehouse, Schaefer said, is on the verge of becoming extinct.
Illegal wildlife trafficking is a multibillion dollar business, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls wildlife trafficking an "international crisis." The U.S. Department of Justice says illegal species trade is largely driven by Asian buyers, some who are willing to pay up to $60,000 per kilo for rhino horns.
"Each illegally traded horn or tusk represents not an antique object but a dead animal. Wildlife trafficking entails poaching, bribery, smuggling and organized crime," said John Cruden, the assistant attorney general who oversees environmental prosecution.
Cruden heads a government task force called Operation Crash, which he said is designed to target people who deal in the illegal animal trade.
In south Florida, an antiques dealer named Christopher Hayes has recently pleaded guilty to selling endangered black rhino horns to clients across the nation and even overseas.
CNN caught up with him in West Palm Beach, Florida, after he was sentenced to three years in federal prison.
In court, he told the judge he had made a "terrible mistake."
As he left, a friend held up a white shirt in front of his face, in an attempt to shield his identity from our cameras.
"It doesn't matter," Hayes said when asked by CNN to explain why he was selling horns.
The government said Hayes sold 19 pounds of rare and endangered black rhino horns worth about $400,000. As part of his plea agreement, he said he would pay the government a $1.5 million fine.