Officials on guard for international pests

Agents look for items air travelers bring into U.S. that could harm U.S. crops

By Katie Demeria

Officials at Dulles International Airport in Dulles recently intercepted a “good luck” primate skull topped with feathers. And a necklace of primate teeth. Also, dead bats and a dead mongoose.

The skull came from Russia, the necklace from Gabon and the dead animals from South Sudan. They were brought to the airport in May and June.

By destroying the skull and necklace, officials may have prevented HIV or monkey pox from entering the country, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection news release.

Chief agriculture specialist Kevin Holmes called the confiscated items interesting — and rare.

“It’s very interesting because it’s so unusual,” Holmes said. “What we usually look for are seeds, plants, insects — anything that can actually come in and damage our agricultural crops.”

Holmes and his team are always on the lookout for anything that could potentially hurt the American public — or the agriculture industry. They work closely with other government agencies to monitor what is happening in foreign countries and what they should specifically be on the lookout for.

Right now, Holmes and his team are making sure the khapra beetle does not enter the country. mIt is a stored grain pest that comes from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

“If it gets into stored grains, it can do some significant damage to the quality of those grains, and affect our ability as producers of grain to ship overseas,” Holmes said. “It can cause some serious economic damage, as well as quality damage to our food.”

Holmes meets regularly with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and other state agencies to ensure that all are working cooperatively to protect Virginia farmers from foreign threats.

When those threats get through the borders, they can be detrimental. Holmes said the emerald ash borer is a good example.

The beetles were discovered in Michigan, Holmes said, and came in through Canada. According to a Shenandoah National Park news release, they have killed over 50 million ash trees in the United States and Canada. Sixty-five beetles were recently found in the park’s northern end near Front Royal.

“What’s important to forestry in our region is keeping out invasive insect pests,” Holmes said. “We want to make sure we don’t have any exotic pests invading those resources.”

Most of the time, he said, travelers are honest about what they have. But the team still looks for indicators, such as burlap bags that could hold stored grains, fruits or vegetables that could carry an insect, and plant products.

But the agriculture specialists do sometimes intercept more exotic, interesting items like those discovered earlier this year. Diplomats from African nations will sometimes bring in charred monkey meat or bush meat, for example — which applies to anything that you can get in the African bush, even a type of rodent that is raised commercially.

“What we do is very important,” Holmes said. “The natural resources in this country are vast, they’re the greatest assets we have, and we want to make sure they stay intact and conserved.”

“That’s why we’re here, and why what we do is so important to the American people,” he added.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com