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.
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.
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.
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.