There seems to be no end to the horrors inflicted on animals. From factory farming to the atrocities against companion animals, with whom we supposedly share our hearts and homes, animals that depend on humans for survival seem to be at the mercy of fools. Worse, that is just the assessment domestically.
When you begin to look for American complicity in grievous acts perpetrated against animals from other countries, you need look no further than wildlife trafficking. American consumerism has international renown, and our insatiable desire includes a demand for black market products. Consequently, the United States is one of the world’s largest consumers of illegal wildlife and wildlife products, reports the Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization with the singular focus of protecting wildlife and their natural habitats. Rosa Indenbaum, International Policy Analyst for Defenders, explained in an official Defenders publication that
Much of the world’s trade in illegal wildlife is either driven by U.S. consumers or passes through U.S. ports en route to other destinations.”
A pervasive problem
Wildlife trafficking–poaching and illegal trade in wildlife and related goods–is one of the most lucrative illegal activities in the world. Nearly 350 millions plants and animals are sold on the black market annually, generating the equivalent of between seven and twenty-three billion U.S. dollars. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), high value wildlife products are often trafficked by “organized criminal syndicates that are known to finance violent non-state actors including terrorists groups and unsanctioned militias. Armed conflicts can exacerbate wildlife killing and trafficking, and trafficking is frequently associated with other forms of crime such as money laundering.” Adding evidence to the seriousness of wildlife trafficking, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says on its website that wildlife trafficking has “transformed into one of the largest transnational organized criminal activities alongside drug trafficking, arms, and trafficking in human beings.”
Most people are familiar with the illegal trade of animals from Africa and Asia, especially elephants, rhinoceros, and tigers. The vile truth is that no part of the world is exempt, and wildlife trafficking threatens the survival of many iconic species. Furthermore, the economic development, environmental sustainability, and even the national security of countries around the globe are threatened by wildlife crimes. The surprising fact is that much of the illegal activity involves Latin American countries. Indigenous animals such as exotic birds, sea turtles, sharks, coral, caiman, crocodiles, and iguana are in great demand. Indenbaum explained via email that in 2015, the UNODC “identified Central and Southern America and the Caribbean as priority regions for combating wildlife and forest crime.”
Defenders of Wildlife aims its expertise on Latin America
Latin America includes many developing countries, is the home of a diverse population of endangered species, and is grappling with corruption and inadequate law enforcement. These factors create a perfect environment for illegal wildlife activities and are part of the reason that Defenders has chosen to focus on trafficking between Latin American and the United States. “Since Latin American is underrepresented, we wanted to see what inroads we could make. It’s also where we have the most contacts and the best relationships. These three pillars are why we focus on Latin America for a lot of our international work,” Indenbaum said.
Generally, Defenders focuses on the Americas and always strives not to duplicate work that is already being done. Their focus on Latin America and their innovative approaches fill a critical need. For example, Defenders analyzed data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS) to identify the most commonly used routes and the most frequently trafficked animals and derivative products. LEMIS is the most detailed database on the import and export of illegal wildlife shipments. The Defender’s analysis was unprecedented and focused on animals covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Defenders also examined U.S. law enforcement capacity to detect and deter illegal shipments and discovered, among other things, that a lack of funding contributes to insufficient patrol of entry points. Of the 328 recognized ports of entry in the U.S., only eighteen are officially designated for wildlife and have a staff of full-time wildlife inspectors. Only three of those eighteen have wildlife detector dogs. The trained dogs work 100 times faster than human inspectors to inspect packages and identify contraband.
What can be done to make a difference?
A collaborative, concerted effort is crucial to success in combating these egregious crimes. Defenders has not only revealed unique aspects of the wildlife trafficking issue, but also released several recommendations to help combat wildlife trafficking. Foremost, they say it is crucial for the Federal government to hire more law enforcement officers and wildlife inspectors. Businesses must also take responsibility to ensure that commercial wildlife products come from sustainable sources and have the proper documentation to prove it. Consumers are urged to avoid the purchase of products that could contain illegal wildlife or derivative products. This writer suggests that consumers educate themselves, develop compassion, and become aware that the crimes fueled by their desire for these products involve the suffering and torture of innocent animals.
Unless otherwise stated, appreciation to Defenders of Wildlife for source data and interviews.
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