November 19, 2015

Wildlife trafficking is a global concern. Wild animals from all over the world are captured or killed, then brought into this barbaric trade, the shipments sometimes traveling thousands of miles to reach a market where the demand for these animals, or what can be made from them, drives the whole process. The U.S. is a major hub for this trade. What enters this country, and from where, gives us a greater perspective on wildlife trafficking.

We recently analyzed a decade of data, from 2005 to 2014, provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS). We looked at all wildlife imports from around the globe that were denied entry to the United States – whether they were seized by law enforcement, re-exported to where they came from, or abandoned by the sender. All this information is recorded for each shipment, but not often analyzed as a whole. So that’s exactly what we did, to get the biggest possible picture of what wildlife trafficking into the U.S. looks like.

Illegal wildlife products come into the U.S. from 214 different countries.

Rhinos, © Guy StandenWildlife trafficking occurs in, travels through, and is consumed in many countries. It is hard to overemphasize the fact that wildlife trafficking is a global crime that occurs in nearly every corner of the world. In our analysis, Defenders discovered wildlife imports entering the United States from 214 different countries and territories, representing every region of the world. While it may not surprise you that Asia was the most common exporting region with 37.5% of the shipments, North America was not far behind with 28.7% of the shipments. In fact, Mexico and Canada were ranked first and third in terms of the countries of export. Regardless of what’s in the shipments and where they originate, many of them are entering the United States from our neighbors to the north and south. Being on the lookout for shipments of ivory from Gabon, or rhino horn from South Africa is only part of the battle. We now know that we need to look for all these things much closer to home as well.

More illegal shipments enter the U.S. via San Francisco, California than anywhere else.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors wildlife imports and exports at 64 ports of entry around the country. In the decade of data Defenders analyzed, wildlife imports were denied at each and every one of those ports, indicating that those shipments likely contained illegal products. However, the majority of shipments were denied entry at three specific ports: San Francisco, CA; Anchorage, AK; and El Paso, TX. Remarkably, Anchorage saw more illegal shipments than places like Los Angeles and New York! El Paso, a border port of entry, is not designated to receive the import and export of wildlife. This means that wildlife shipments are not supposed to enter through El Paso without a special permit, yet El Paso was the third most common port of entry for illegal shipments. Two other common ports of entry may also surprise you – Louisville and Memphis – both of which are home to large international shipping companies that process more than one million packages every day.

Meat is the biggest driver of wildlife trafficking.

Shark fins, © NOAAWildlife trafficking takes on many forms. In our analysis, Defenders found 77 different types of wildlife parts and products, including live and dead animals. While you might guess that things like ivory carvings, clothing, or live animals for the pet trade were the most common products in illegal trade – that actually isn’t the case. The most common illegal wildlife products coming into the United States by volume were meat, fins, medicinal products, feathers and shell products. Over 3.3. million pounds of meat and 1.5 million pounds of fins were found in the illegal shipments. Almost 900,000 individual feathers were discovered in the shipments, including feathers from species of eagles, macaws, and owls. More than 550,000 shell products – trinkets made from mollusks or turtles – were also found in the shipments. To the untrained eye, seashells, jewelry, and other objects made from shells may appear ordinary. But the truth is that these items can (and as the data shows, often are) made from protected species and sold illegally. The variety of illegal wildlife products entering the U.S. is vast, but the data gives us some idea of what types of shipments and products to look for. This is important information – not just for policymakers or enforcement officers, but for you, the consumer. With this knowledge, consumers can flag potential purchases of high-risk wildlife products and ask for documentation.

Pythons are among the most trafficked animals.

In the last decade, more than 2,300 shipments contained over 62,000 pythons or python products. While charismatic megafauna like elephants and rhinos get the most attention, smaller, less adorable animals are also being affected by the illegal wildlife trade in devastating numbers. Mammals and reptiles were most frequently recorded in the data we analyzed, but birds were also found on a regular basis. Pythons, crocodiles and alligators are very well represented in the illegal trade, mostly for leather products made from their skin. But we also saw two unexpected animals among the most frequently trafficked: the white-tailed deer and the Southern African ostrich. The white-tailed deer is commonly imported as a trophy, but is also sought after for its horns alone. The ostrich is used to make leather products, much like the reptiles. While the data showed many shipments containing foreign species, American black bear parts were found repeatedly, mostly imported from Canada.

In total, our analysis discovered 5.5 million individual wildlife parts and products, more than 660,000 animals and more than 4.8 million pounds of meat, fins and caviar. Sadly these numbers only represent a fraction of the wildlife on the black market. The trade is vast, and understanding the role the U.S. plays in it – with so many shipments of so many different materials coming from so very many places – is extremely complex. But it is only by gaining a global look at this trade and our place in it that we can begin to truly confront its impacts on the wildlife we care about, both here in the U.S. and around the world.

Remember, if you are considering purchasing wildlife or wildlife products, make sure to ask for proper documentation. And when it doubt – rule it out!

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