Green Sea Turtle, ©Adam Victorino

Deadly Traffic: The U.S. Plays an Unwitting Role in Illegal Wildlife Trade

Today is World Wildlife Day – a day created by the United Nations to celebrate the beautiful and varied wild creatures valued by people worldwide. But this day also reminds us of the global threat the illegal wildlife trade poses to these animals.

It’s easy to consider this trade a distant, international issue; something that’s a problem in other countries but not here at home. After all, elephants are poached in Africa, tigers in Asia, frogs and parrots in South America – what does it have to do with the U.S.? Sadly, the answer is: Far more than you might think.

The Problem

Customs agents seize thousands of animals and wildlife parts and products each year at U.S. ports of entry. In 2014, more than 180,000 illicit wildlife-related shipments were inspected in the United States, with Los Angeles and New York as the most common points of entry. Some of these items were destined for U.S. consumers, and some was simply passing through. But all of it has an impact on struggling species – and the problem is growing.

While some incidents may simply involve one or two products – souvenirs bought on a trip, perhaps – more and more often, we are seeing commercial-level seizures involving amounts so large they are clearly meant to be sold. For example, in 2014 some 99 iguana eggs from El Salvador were seized in Miami, Florida and in 2012, officials in San Diego, California seized 365 dead seahorses on their way into the country from Mexico. The United States is a transit point for wildlife trafficking, especially products destined for Asian markets, like sea cucumbers, shark fins, totoaba swim bladders, sea horses, and pythons. It’s disturbing to see the role we play in this troubling trade – but there is also an opportunity here. By raising awareness about the trade routes into and out of the country, the United States can reduce illegal wildlife trade not just in the U.S. but worldwide.

Shark Fins, © Jake Li/Defenders of Wildlife

A pile of shark fins lies on a dock in Tawian.

As if our role as the transit hub for wildlife trafficking wasn’t bad enough, we are also consumers. In fact, the United States is the second-largest consumer of illegal wildlife products worldwide. In particular, the U.S. is one of the largest ivory consumers in the world. While much of the ivory comes directly from Africa or China, newly analyzed data also indicates that ivory is entering the United States from Latin America. The U.S. also brings in a large quantity of other wildlife products, including caiman skins used for clothing, conch and sea turtles used for cuisine and decoration, and macaw feathers used for jewelry and other adornments. Every one of these products has a real-world consequence for wildlife, either by killing the animals that provided it, or by taking them out of the wild, leaving fewer to keep the population going. The scarlet macaw, for instance, has almost disappeared from the wild in Mexico because so many are taken for the illegal trade.

Scarlet macaw, © María Elena Sánchez

Scarlet macaw, another victim of illegal wildlife trade.

So how can you help fight wildlife trafficking?

We’re working with officials in countries around the world to combat the illegal wildlife trade by getting protections put in place, and making sure they are enforced. But there are also steps you can take at home to make a big difference for wildlife:

1 – Raise Awareness

The first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is one. Spread the word about the role the U.S. plays in wildlife trafficking to your family, friends and community.

2 – Ask Questions

One of the biggest powers you have to fight this trade is as a consumer – so always ask where a product is coming from. Anything from seafood, to pets, to clothing products can be part of how wildlife is exploited. The more questions we ask as consumers, the more accountable producers and sellers will need to be.

3 – Stay Informed

You can also learn more about how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works against the trade, and the Presidential Task Force, which just recently announced plans to step up efforts to fight trafficking both in the U.S. and abroad. We’ll keep you updated when opportunities come up to get involved.

Together, we can make a real difference for the sharks, frogs, parrots, sea turtles and other wildlife that are exploited for this illegal and devastating trade.

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Categories: Wildlife

17 Responses to “Deadly Traffic: The U.S. Plays an Unwitting Role in Illegal Wildlife Trade”

  1. yut

    Help wild life.
    join to do.
    fix it.
    courage can change the world to be better.

  2. Bonnie Fairchild

    Thank you for Rosa, for raising awareness. It is wonderful to see that you continue to do exceptionally well in all that pursue!

  3. Richard Indenbaum

    Thank you, Rosa, for your excellent and informative article!

  4. Bonnie M Jackson

    I watch my neighbor feed a pack of 8 coyotes and love their beauty. Acton , California

    • Betsy Rumely

      I too love coyotes, but your neighbor’s action in feeding them in endangering them–and you, and also possibly illegal. If you have time, look on the internet for the importance of hazing coyotes–bad name and sounds awful, but it is the best behavior around them to avoid habituating them to humans.

  5. Mark

    Thanks for article; I really enjoyed it.
    I retired from National Park Service law enforcement, and have spent over 6 years traveling in 21 third world countries. When I first went to southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, China, and Indonesia) I was shocked at the amount of illegal wildlife parts I saw for sale. There was no question in my mind that law enforcement was paying zero attention to this trade, as there was no attempt to hide it. That was in 2006, but even now, I’m not convinced that most areas make an honest attempt to stop it. I met my wife in Thailand in 2005, and have been in the area many times, the latest being last year. Ivory, tiger teeth and skins, threatened or endangered animals, rhino horn, they all are for sale. I have personally met 2 people in Thailand who told me that they are friends of officials, and that they were given permission to build their house within a National Park (which they did). In Sumatra, I was told by local people that if they want land to clear native forest off of, and plant oil palms, a bribe will allow them to take control of protected (on paper) forest reserves. Another example of the two faced nature of officials there is that the country will state that they are toughening up their attitude against counterfeit goods; trade in counterfeit watches is a good example. In reality, the police know exactly who is dealing in these items, and the dealers merely put the stuff under the counter when the police walk by. Small bribes are paid, and everyone is happy. You can EASILY see this occurring in Bangkok. In fact I can tell you the exact street this happens on every night of the year.
    So my bottom line is that many third world nations will say that they have really toughened up their enforcement of illegal wildlife trade, but in reality, they often ignore it. Part of the reason is that police pay is often unbelievably low, and if there is no bribe to be made, they are not interested. Were you stopped for speeding? No problem, offer the cop $5 and he’ll go away.
    I know that my statements hurt, but they are the truth from what I’ve seen, and I have little faith in many countries efforts to control illegal wildlife trade, regardless of what their officials state. Sure, there are large busts made in those countries, but I’m not convinced that those are anything other than a show to demonstrate that they are on top of things.

    • Ann Murray

      It is absolutely mind-boggling to know all that goes on in the illegal (but apparently ‘legal’) trade in various body parts of animals. Consumers need to become more aware of what their choices mean to the big picture of saving literally millions of animals from gruesome ends.

  6. LakeladyP

    Very informative. I wish there was a link to post it to Facebook.

  7. Debra Warrens

    As a human being it is our moral duty to save and protect our wildlife and their environment.

  8. sharon


  9. Ken

    thanks for such an informative article. All animals are God”s creatures also.

  10. Kate Mabry

    It is so refreshing to read these positive, honest and informative comments regarding the illegal trade of wildlife and/or parts in many foreign countries where extreme poverty exists or not. The corruptness of law enforcement or the lack thereof, points to a huge lack of “morality” in the world and is very disturbing, disgusting and disappointing. Surely education is the beginning, followed by opportunities for decent wages offered w/decent jobs in these countries. However, in this great nation of the United States, we are most blessed w/these opportunities, which are unheard of in so many other countries. I am grateful for the spirits of those dedicated conservation officers in the world that protect and serve and have paid the ultimate sacrifice, killed in the line of duty. They believed in abiding by the “laws of the land” and strived to work daily to make the difference by putting their lives “on the line”. These heroes are rarely thanked for their dedication, beliefs, and pursuit of daily enforcement of federal, state, county, city and local regulations and laws that protect us and our environment. We must always be vigilant and constantly seek to preserve, conserve and protect our human and natural resources in the world and it begins on each and everyone of our doorsteps. These heroes have not died in vain as we continue to strive to ensure a better life and protections for both animals and humans that are less fortunate in this world.

  11. Donna Greven

    One thing that bothers me more than any other in illegal trades is seeing examples of police burning huge piles of ivory confiscated from poachers. I think how TRULY and terribly in VAIN those poor elephants died. The countries where this response, often poor, third world African countries, could use the ivory as revenue rather than wasting ivory from alteady killed animals even though the animals were illegally killed in the first place, the pochers having hoped to gain profit for themselves. Clearly they are the ones to be punished, but now the animals, elephants will have truly died in vain for the satisfaction of nothing greater than man’s ego.
    So much waste for what?!

  12. Patricia Rossi

    Never can understand the stupidity of the “people in charge”. Guess it all comes down to money..forgetting all else. Cruelty doesn’t matter…interruption of Eco systems doesn’t matter…importing deadly animals doesn’t matter. Does anyone have common sense or a conscience anymore?

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