February 24, 2016

In this modern day of travel and internet, the global trade in goods has grown exponentially – including both legal and illegal wildlife and wildlife products. Every single day, millions of products and shipments arrive in the United States on trains, planes, boats, cars and trucks. Ten years ago, the value of the illegal wildlife trade coming in to the United States could be estimated at $566 million, but today it is valued at over $2 billion – more than tripling in value. Our experts recently analyzed a decade of data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discover where these items come from, where they end up and the route they take to get there.

Hair Highway: China to Anchorage

Kolinsky Sable Art Brushes, © Matter of FactThe most common illegal wildlife product found in the trade route from China to Anchorage, Alaska was hair products. These are items like paint brushes made with or from animal hair. The products in this route were made from badgers, otters, and weasels, but mostly from sables. Sables are a species of marten – a relative of otters and ferrets – that are found from Russia to Japan. Following a pattern that is seen in all the trade routes here, there is a geographical link between the country of export (China, in this case) and the animal used to make most of the main product. Sables are found throughout China and were the most common animal used to make hair products shipped from China to Anchorage. Sable fur can be various shades of brown and is thought to be the silkiest fur of all marten species. One of the unique features of sable fur is that it is smooth no matter which direction it is felt. Sable fur has been found in the fur trade for hundreds of years, and continues to be a prime target for hair products. Although sables are often farmed for their fur, some people believe that wild-caught sables produce the best product. As a result, commercial hunting still exists, and continues to impact wild populations of sables, including those in China where they are listed as endangered.

Medicinal Marketplace: China to San Francisco

seahorse, © Brian GratwickeThe trade route from China to San Francisco, California is mainly used for illegal trade in medicinal products. But take that description with a giant grain of salt. “Medicinal products” covers a wide variety of things, including oils, powders, tonics and salves made from horns, claws, scales and gall bladders. There is rarely any scientific proof to show the effectiveness of these products or the medicines made from them. In this route, we found medicinal products made from all kinds of animals, from Saiga antelopes and tigers, to freshwater and sea turtles, and pangolins. However, the most common victim was seahorses. Seahorses have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, and are thought to cure many ailments, including kidney problems, circulatory problems, abdominal pain and impotence. Seahorses also have low birth rates, and their populations are irregularly distributed, making all 50 species vulnerable to extinction. It is estimated that more than 20 million seahorses are harvested every year for medicinal purposes.

Shoe Shortcut: Mexico to Laredo

Caiman, © Rosa Indenbaum/Defenders of WildlifeYes, there is an entire wildlife trafficking superhighway dedicated just to shoes. Sadly, it’s not that surprising if you think about it. Many shoes are made of leather, and people don’t always go to the trouble to find out what kind of leather it is, what animal it came from, and if that species is in trouble. The shoes and boots using the route from Mexico to Laredo, Texas were made from a variety of animals, including crocodile, eel, elephant, ostrich, sea turtle and tegu. But the majority of the shoes and boots were made from caiman leather. A number of caiman species are found in Central and South America and throughout southern Mexico. Caiman leather is often used as a lower-quality substitute for other leathers, but is passed off as higher-quality for higher-prices. Some caiman species are as small as three feet long, meaning it would take a number of individual animals to make a pair of boots. Unfortunately, the low-cost, high-return of caiman leather makes them very susceptible to illegal trade.

Dead Animal Detour: Mexico to Nogales

Sometimes, the victims of wildlife trafficking make it into the U.S. intact, intentionally shipped whole for any number of reasons. This way, the animal could later be used for the meat, the skin, any number of parts, or for display after it is taxidermied. Sadly, dead animals were the most common illegal product found in the trade route from Mexico to Nogales, Arizona. The species discovered were all over the map, from armadillos, to doves, to iguanas, to starfish. But the most common type of animal was frogs – especially bullfrogs and Forrer’s grass frog. Forrer’s grass frog is native to Mexico and Central America, and is mostly sought after to eat. It is considered a delicacy by some, and is likely traded whole for this reason.

Wildlife trafficking, like legal trade, is complex and sophisticated. Just like other businesses, wildlife traffickers ship their products in the ways that make the most sense geographically, logistically and financially. And, just as other markets have expanded over the last decade – so has the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. Understanding these trade routes is extremely valuable. It can help both authorities and consumers know what products tend to be illegal when they come from a specific country. You’ll probably be taking a closer look now before you buy any leather shoes shipped from Mexico, won’t you? This information also gives law enforcement officers a heads up about whether a particular shipment might need closer inspection, based on what it is and where it’s coming from. Armed with this information, we can all – authorities and average buyers alike – take extra steps to combat wildlife trafficking.

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