U.S. consumer demand fuels illegal wildlife trade, jeopardizing imperiled species around the globe

By Sharon Guynup

Wildlife trafficking, © John and Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS On a Monday in February 2013, Carlos Pages pored over paperwork that accompanied a huge shipment of animals that had just arrived at Miami International Airport on a flight from Paraguay. The crates and boxes contained a wide assortment of species—some 3,500 toads, frogs, tarantulas and snakes. Although the animals arrived in pretty good shape and everything looked okay on paper, something wasn’t quite right, remembers Pages, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) inspector. Then an email tip came in, informing him that the documents were forged. “Counterparts in Paraguay verified that the permits were fraudulent, and we seized the animals,” he says. 

Eleven days later, the animals were loaded back on a plane, headed home. En route 204 of them perished. Back in Paraguay, the survivors were examined, quarantined, and the healthy ones were ultimately released back into the wild.

This ranks among the larger U.S. wildlife seizures and has a much happier ending than most stories about smuggled wildlife. Over the last decade, prices for wildlife and animal products have skyrocketed, creating an ever-growing, deadly commerce in living things. Live animals are often shipped under abysmal conditions, stuffed into plastic water bottles or pockets, or anywhere you see drugs smuggled like wheel wells or car door panels. They are drugged and duct-taped to a trafficker’s body or loaded into suitcases—and up to 90 percent die in transit. Of those that are discovered by enforcement or customs agents, very few are repatriated. Fewer yet are re-released. 

While there’s been a strong international focus on wildlife trafficking from Africa and Asia because of the sheer numbers of animals involved, this seizure in Miami highlights the fact that Latin America is also a major target for poachers and smugglers into the United States. But wildlife crime has stepped onto the world stage mainly because of three intensely hunted species: elephants—more than 100,000 have been slaughtered for their ivory since 2010, rhinos—whose horn is now worth more than heroin, gold or cocaine, and tigers—perhaps 3,000 remain in the wild, scattered in small pockets across Asia. 

The global black market trade in these and many other species generates about $20 billion a year in profits, according to United Nations (U.N.) estimates. The massive scale of this trade is already reversing decades of work conserving dwindling species—and is poaching many creatures to the brink of extinction. Illegal wildlife trade currently ranks among the planet’s most lucrative transnational organized crimes. 

“The rarer these animals are, the greater the value,” says Don Barry, Defenders of Wildlife’s senior vice president for conservation programs. For those who have established the ability to move things invisibly from country to country, he says, “expanding to include something like wildlife products becomes a fairly simple decision. It’s a high-profit, low-risk enterprise.”

Wildlife crime had traditionally ranked low on the list of priorities for most countries, but now it is gaining national and international attention. In July, the U.N. General Assembly passed its first-ever resolution on illicit trafficking of wildlife, calling for urgent action. Last September, U.N. member states adopted new sustainable development goals that recognized wildlife crime as a global threat. In 2013, the U.N. Economic and Social Council urged member countries to treat wildlife crime as a “serious crime” under the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Interpol (International Criminal Police Organization) is helping countries with intelligence and larger police operations.

In July 2013 President Obama issued Executive Order 13684 to combat wildlife trafficking and established a presidential task force to address what he called an escalating international crisis that is “contributing to the illegal economy, fueling instability, and undermining security.” 

The United States is one of the largest consumers of wildlife. “In this country, people tend to think of wildlife trafficking as something that is happening in distant foreign lands,” says Barry. “I think Americans are always shocked and surprised to learn that the United States is one of the largest black markets for poached and smuggled wildlife.” The United States is a major player because of both high demand and limited funding for enforcement at its borders and ports.

A sizeable percentage of illicit wildlife trade from Latin America and the Caribbean is headed for—or transits through—the United States. Latin America is a wildlife crime hotspot because there’s easy money there for underworld smuggling networks and an amazing breadth of biodiversity in an area lacking the resources and enforcement needed to protect it. Everything imaginable is being illegally hunted and traded, from birds, fish and turtles to frogs, monkeys and butterflies that come in as pupae.

To better understand the scope of the trade, Defenders of Wildlife analyzed information on illegal wildlife shipments seized at U.S. ports from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. They used data collected by one of the world’s most comprehensive wildlife trade monitoring systems, the Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS), which is managed by FWS.

The resulting report identifies the most commonly trafficked endangered, threatened and imperiled animals, charts the primary trade routes and examines the ability of FWS inspectors to police animal shipments flowing into U.S. ports. 

Those shipments include everything from luxury fashion items, tourist souvenirs purchased abroad, exotic pets, traditional medicines and wildlife meats and eggs. Overall, more than 20 percent of confiscated animals and animal products were from species so rare that all cross-border trade for commercial purposes is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates that trade under a treaty signed by 181 nations. 

Queen conch proved to be the most frequently seized animal. It’s sought after for its large spiral glossy pink shell, which is a coveted souvenir and is also crafted into jewelry, and for its meat, which is considered a delicacy. Luscious pink conch pearls found in shells at a rate of 1-in-10,000 have been collectors’ items since Victorian times and can fetch $600 to $1,000 each, depending on the size and shape. Since this mollusk is slow to mature and heavily harvested, it was listed on CITES’ Appendix II in 1992, which requires permits for legal export and import. The United States currently consumes 80 percent of the world’s internationally traded queen conch.

LEMIS data showed that sea turtles were the second most-confiscated animal, mainly coming in from Mexico and Central America. They’ve long been hunted for their gorgeous shells—used to make jewelry, tortoise shell eyeglasses, combs and other trinkets—and for their meat and eggs. As a result, all six New World species are endangered. Meat is usually brought into the United States in small quantities, anywhere from a few ounces to 20 or 30 pounds. 

Seizures of sea turtle eggs—which resemble ping pong balls—range anywhere from a couple of hundred to thousands. In the United States, the eggs are consumed as an aphrodisiac and eaten as an appetizer in many Central American bars, says Edward Grace, FWS’s deputy assistant director. During nesting season, FWS sets up blitzes at some of the bigger ports of entry. People conceal the eggs similar to ways they hide illegal drugs. “They put them in suitcases, cover them in coffee grounds or wrap them in aluminum foil or saran wrap to hide them from dogs,” says Grace. 

FWS data also revealed that the United States is a major consumer of reptiles: Caimans, crocodiles and iguanas were discovered in 9 percent of all illegitimate shipments. Caiman and crocodile skin is used to make boots, wallets, belts, bags and other leather items. Iguanas are a hot item in the pet trade, with some species commanding thousands of dollars, and are also eaten.

Some Latin American countries are now captive-breeding caiman, lizards and tortoises that are being brought in by the hundreds as babies, says Carlos Pages. This parallel legal market can be used to “launder” wild-caught animals, and even with their expertise, input from other institutions and analysis by their forensics team, the origins of these animals may be hard to prove. Some legally traded species have endangered look-alikes that are hard to tell apart.

Miami gets the largest imports of venomous animals of anywhere in the country, including deadly snakes like the bushmaster and fer de lance and huge shipments of tarantulas. “We get every critter you can think of out of South America and Central America,” says Pages. 

From 2004 to 2013, FWS confiscated 81,526 pounds of illegal wildlife and 7,111 illegal animals, along with 47,914 illegal wildlife products exported from Latin America and the Caribbean. Exotic meat was in the highest demand from U.S. consumers (68,481 pounds were found, mostly queen conch but also iguana and sea turtle), followed by eggs from sea turtles and other species (9,128), shoes and boots (5,760) and leather products (4,783)—all mostly made of crocodile, caiman and sea turtle skin—dead animals (4,048) used for decoration or as ingredients in traditional medicine, and medicinal products (2,279). FWS also found specimens for museums or scientists (4,002), mollusk shells (3,704) and macaw, hawk and other feathers (3,238). 

With Mexico right up against our border, it was no surprise that it’s the No. 1 conduit for smuggled wildlife goods into the United States from Latin America, says Barry. Nearly half of illegal shipments came from Mexico, 8.2 percent were from Haiti, and 5.8 percent from El Salvador. Most shipments were apprehended in El Paso, Texas, and Miami. 

Defenders’ report noted that FWS, the primary agency responsible for enforcing federal wildlife laws, is severely underfunded—making it impossible to meet their mandate despite a dedicated staff. “FWS has only 130 or fewer wildlife inspectors who are theoretically supposed to cover 328 ports of entry across the country,” says Barry. “Only 38 ports have inspectors permanently stationed there, which is roughly one of 10 ports. The special agents and the inspectors that FWS can currently afford to hire are just a fraction of what is needed to get the job done. They have an impossible job, and they need greater resources.”

Grace notes that FWS has roughly the same number of officers it had in the 1970s, when the trade was nowhere like it is now. Following President Obama’s Executive Order, the number of wildlife inspectors actually dropped from 140 to 130.

Erin Dean, the resident agent in charge at the port of Los Angeles, explains what that means on the ground. “We have a staff of six wildlife inspectors, one canine detection dog, a handler and a supervisor,” she says. Her staff must cover two seaports and four airports, as well as FedEx, UPS and other courier facilities. In 2013 those inspectors examined 22,409 recorded wildlife shipments, but the combined trade facilities in L.A. that year processed some 1.9 million tons of air cargo, 5.5 million shipping containers and 3.9 million tons of ocean freight. “We’re treading water, trying to keep from sinking,” she says. “We’re reacting—we’re not being proactive. I hate to say it, but I can only imagine how much we’re missing.”

Nationwide, there are about 200 investigators to do the type of undercover work necessary to nab the people masterminding the trade. Simply arresting couriers doesn’t solve the problem.

The other issue, says Barry, is that “our federal wildlife conservation laws are inadequate to meet the challenge of this current tidal wave of smuggled wildlife and wildlife products that are hitting our shores.” We have two primary laws: the Lacey Act, which was passed in 1900—a 115-year-old statute—and the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). Neither of them impose stiff penalties. Under the ESA, someone convicted of smuggling endangered species into the United States could possibly face no more than a year in prison. 

But that could soon change. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act in November, which puts wildlife trafficking on par with other serious crimes. By extending racketeering, money-laundering and smuggling laws to the illegal trade, the act dramatically increases fines and prison sentences and ensures that law enforcement officials have the tools to crackdown on trafficking and to deter would-be poachers. Similar legislation is now before the Senate. 

Dean believes that changing how wildlife traffickers are sentenced is crucial. “We need to help the courts understand what kind of money is involved in this trade and how serious it really is,” she says.

Trafficking wildlife around the world is wiping out imperiled species and spreading viruses and disease to wild populations. But there are broader impacts: Extracting hundreds or thousands of animals from an ecosystem causes inestimable damage, dismantling natural systems that have been fine-tuned over millennia. 

To stem the tide, we need to act, says Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders’ president and CEO. First off, Congress or the administration must significantly increase funding for FWS law enforcement efforts so the agency can adequately patrol U.S. ports of entry and enforce the nation’s wildlife laws against wildlife smuggling. “We must also reduce market demands for vulnerable species and their products by educating American consumers about the illegal wildlife trade and its impacts on imperiled species—and how our appetites and fashion desires provide the economic fuel for continued poaching and smuggling,” she writes in her foreword to the report. “No species should be sacrificed to produce a nice pair of boots or an exotic bowl of soup.”

If you don’t want to become part of the problem, says Barry, then you need to exercise your power as a consumer, asking questions before you buy wildlife or wildlife products. Do you really need to buy the item? Can the sellers document that it was acquired legally—and can they prove is it legal to sell? “If not, walk away,” he says.

Clark adds, “We can have a significant impact on the U.S. black market for imperiled wildlife and wildlife products. But it will take all of us working together to force this market into extinction before it drives some of our treasured species there first.” 

Sharon Guynup writes on wildlife and environmental issues and is a National Geographic Explorer. 


Defender to the Core

A Q&A with a Defenders Expert

Rosa Indenbaum, Defenders’ international policy analyst

Q: What are some commonly trafficked animals that enter the United States that we don’t hear much about?
A: Mammals and reptiles are the most frequently trafficked animals, but mollusks, corals and birds are not far behind. Three very similar animals—crocodiles, alligators and caimans—are up there with the most frequently trafficked animals. But, it might surprise people to learn that species such as the white-tailed deer, the Southern African ostrich and queen conch are also frequently found in illegal trade. From Latin America, the most commonly traded animals are queen conches, sea turtles, caimans, crocodiles and iguanas. Snakes, such as boa constrictors and reticulated pythons, are also frequently found in illegal shipments. Also the trade in elephant ivory is so pervasive worldwide that African elephant products are illegally imported to the United States from Latin America.

Q: What types of items are most commonly smuggled into the United States? What is in high demand?
A: The variety of illegal wildlife products in demand is truly astonishing. Anything from garments to food to manufactured products and decorative trinkets can be found on the black market. The U.S. market for illegal wildlife is vast and varied, but undoubtedly at the top of the list is meat. Other products like fins, feathers, eggs, shells and shoes are also in high demand, followed closely by small manufactured leather products, such as wallets and belts, and dead animals likely intended for display, consumption or further processing.

Q: How can we help bring an end to the illegal wildlife trade here in the United States?
A: Exercise your power as a consumer and ask questions. Unfortunately, when we see something for sale in a retail shop the assumption is that the product or animal is being offered for sale legally. We need to change that collective mindset and begin asking sellers for proof of legality and proof of legal importation. Let’s not be passive or inadvertent consumers of illegal wildlife and wildlife products. When in doubt, rule it out!


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