- A new Defenders of Wildlife report finds that US consumers are hungry for parrots, turtles, iguanas, tropical fish and other wildlife, along with wildlife products, illegally imported from South America.
- The 130 US Fish and Wildlife agents tasked with inspecting millions of tons of cargo that pass through the nation’s seaports, airports and border crossings have an impossible task — an unknown sum of illegally trafficked wildlife escapes their notice.
- The only way to stop the illegal trade into the US, and better protect Latin American species and ecosystems, is for the US government to increase enforcement and penalties, and for American consumers to stop buying illicit wildlife products.
Last March, a four-year manhunt finally paid off when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) investigators teamed with Mexican officials to arrest a notorious American wildlife trafficker. Isaac Zimerman, 66, was apprehended near Metepec, Mexico and later extradited back to the US.
In 2009, he’d been charged for using his company, the Hawthorne, California-based River Wonders LLC, to smuggle piranhas and river stingrays from South America for sale in the US — species barred under California state law. He was later slapped with other charges for trafficking pirarucu fish (Arapaima gigas) out of the US into Canada and Bermuda while on pre-trial release.
Zimerman turned fugitive in 2010. Special agents with USFWS tracked his movements through Europe to Israel and finally into Mexico, an investigation that included assistance from US Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security, the US Department of Justice and INTERPOL.
In a 13-count indictment, Zimerman is now also accused of a slew of federal charges, including conspiracy, obstructing an investigation, false statements and falsifying documents. On November 9th, he pleaded guilty in US District Court to knowingly exporting pirarucu — the world’s largest freshwater fish, which are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) — without required permits. He could face up to 10 years in prison.
Zimerman’s is an extraordinary case for a few reasons: unlike many wildlife smugglers, he got caught, and he was a repeat offender who fled the country and was successfully brought to justice. “To get a wildlife trafficker extradited from Mexico is a big undertaking, and we did it,” said Erin Dean, the resident agent in charge at the port of Los Angeles.
But many smugglers fly under the radar. The flow of illegal wildlife from South America entering or transiting through the US is epidemic, and according to a new report from the Defenders of Wildlife, funding for inspections is so inadequate that the US remains an active trade hub.
Underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed
The USFWS Office of Law Enforcement, which is tasked with inspecting shipments and enforcing both federal and international wildlife laws, employs just 130 wildlife inspectors nationwide. Only 38 of the country’s 328 ports of entry have full-time wildlife inspectors stationed on site — about one in 10.
Despite dedicated staff, these officials have an impossible job, says Donald Barry, Defenders’ senior vice president of species conservation. “Both the special agents and the inspectors are just a fraction of what we need to get the job done.”
It’s an overwhelming undertaking. Globally, the black market trade in living creatures and their parts is estimated at $19 billion a year by the United Nations (UN) — a commerce often run by the same transnational criminal organizations that deal in guns, narcotics and human trafficking operations.
Ed Grace, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy chief of law enforcement, outlines the range of players involved: “Wildlife trafficking ranges from organized criminal groups that are trying to profit off the illegal wildlife trade to individuals who are out poaching big game animals so they can hang them on their wall,” he says. “You also have wildlife being poached for traditional medicinal and the pet trade, sometimes for food — and then there are the collectors who are out there trying to collect the rarest species in the world just so they can say they have one. It really runs the gamut.”
As species grow ever rarer, their value continues to rise. Illegal wildlife trade now ranks among the planet’s most lucrative international organized crimes, making this relatively low-risk trade very attractive to those who already move illegal products invisibly from country to country.
A first step toward curbing the illegal trade
In July 2013, President Obama issued an Executive Order to address what he characterized as an escalating international crisis that is “contributing to the illegal economy, fueling instability, and undermining security.” As part of that decree, he established the Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.
“Right now, wildlife trafficking is a very profitable enterprise,” John C. Cruden, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, told New York Times reporters.
“Our goal is to take the profit out of this illegal trade with all the tools at our disposal,” says Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders president and CEO, who was a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But the initiative is supported by just a small increase in funding for US Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement efforts. The number of wildlife inspectors actually dropped from 140 to 130 following President Obama’s Executive Order, according to Grace. Just three wildlife detector dogs are currently on the force; dogs can “examine” packages 100 times faster than humans because of their keen sense of smell.
“Without a strong and renewed commitment from Congress to provide adequate funding for effective implementation, these laws and treaties are just hollow words,” says Clark
But Congress did give enforcement a boost in November when the House passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act, which places wildlife crime in the same category as gun and drug smuggling. The law will increase penalties, “making it a liable offense for money laundering and racketeering.” The legislation is still awaiting a vote by the Senate.
Latin America’s overlooked but escalating trafficking crisis
With media and public attention riveted on the huge ongoing slaughter of rhinos and elephants in Africa, as well as disappearing tigers, orangutans and other iconic animals in Asia, the Latin American trade remains a largely unexamined part of the massive worldwide poaching and smuggling industry.
However, Defenders’ report notes that literally thousands of imperiled species inhabit these countries in some of the world’s most biodiverse places — and that many of those Latin American and Caribbean nations “struggle with corruption and enforcement.”
Illegal hunting to meet both domestic and international demand is wiping out parrots, macaws and other birds, freshwater and ocean fish, sea cucumbers, a wide array of reptiles and amphibians, monkeys, butterflies, and many other species. It’s a growing crisis that prompted the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to designate Latin America and the Caribbean as a priority in the fight against wildlife crime.
A substantial percentage of the animals flowing out of the region are shipped into the US or transit through on their way to markets in Southeast Asia or elsewhere. This makes the United States a “key player” in wildlife trafficking, according to the report. Almost half of those shipments come in through Mexico; another 8.2 percent were exported from Haiti and 5.8 percent from El Salvador. According to The New York Times, legal records and other documents show that smuggling rings have links to both Mexican and South American drug cartels.
Barry notes that many are shocked to learn that high demand from consumers makes the United States one of the largest markets for poached animals and smuggled wildlife products, second only to China.
US consumers participate in this trade in a wide range of ways, often not realizing that the exotic creatures they’re purchasing as pets or the souvenirs they’re buying while on vacation are endangered species that were pulled from the wild — many of which hang on the brink of extinction.
These animals are frequently transported under the most inhumane circumstances, taped to people’s bodies or stuffed into suitcases, wheel wells, socks, or plastic water bottles. They aren’t fed, are given the wrong food, are exposed to extreme heat or cold, are often severely dehydrated. In many cases, mothers are killed to steal young animals, and the large majority of the young don’t survive transport.
Miami USFWS wildlife inspector Carlos Pages offers a heartbreaking example from 2010. A shipment of about 6,000 animals arrived from Guatemala packed in crates and boxes, mostly arachnids, frogs and tortoises. Seized in Miami, they’d been illegally exported and then “declared” at the US border with forged paperwork. “They were in bad shape when they came in,” remembers Pages. “We were able to release some animals back to Guatemala, but a lot of the animals didn’t make it.” The importer purportedly believed that the shipment was legal.
USFWS data quantifies the problem
Confiscations by USFWS offer the only available data on the numbers and types of animals involved in the illicit trade. Defenders of Wildlife analyzed this data on smuggled wildlife seized while entering U.S. ports from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America to quantify the breadth of the Latin American trade. This data is part of one of the world’s most comprehensive wildlife trade monitoring systems, the Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS), which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Defenders’ report identified the most heavily trafficked species from 2004 to 2013, tracked the main transport routes and assessed the ability of Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors to police animal shipments entering US ports.
Notably, in 2013, USFWS seized more illegal wildlife shipments from Latin America and the Caribbean than they had in a decade: 572 confiscations. But what’s discovered by law enforcement is just a fraction of the entire black market trade. A 2011 study found that globally, illegal trade is estimated to be about one-third of the legal trade.
A wide range of items are discovered by inspectors, from exotic pets, feathers and shoes made from the skins of animals, to souvenirs purchased on vacation, wild meat and eggs.
LEMIS data revealed that by volume, exotic meat was the most-seized item, 68,481 pounds to be exact. Most of that was queen conch (Lobatus gigas), which is prepared in gourmet recipes including conch fritters, salads, ceviche and more. It’s also coveted for its huge spiral pink or orange shell. This mollusk has been so overharvested that since 1992, international trade is limited and requires permits for legal export or import. The US consumes 80 percent of all queen conch that is internationally imported — and 99 percent of that come from the wild.
Queen conch was the most-trafficked animal, followed by sea turtles, caiman, crocodiles and iguanas.
Sea turtle meat and eggs was frequently found, particularly in shipments from Mexico and Central America. The eggs have long been eaten as an appetizer in Central American nations and are considered an aphrodisiac; the meat is a delicacy.
Fashion items were also commonly confiscated, especially products fashioned from crocodile, caiman and sea turtle skin, mostly shoes (5,760) and small leather products such as wallets, belts, watchbands (4,783).
The most seizures were uncovered in ports and/or airports in San Diego, CA; Miami, FL; El Paso, TX; and Louisville, KY.
How to stop trafficking
The trade raises a plethora of concerns including animal welfare issues, the funding of international crime syndicates, species extinction, and wider ecosystem impacts. Each animal has a distinct impact on the ecology of the region it inhabits, natural systems that have been fine-tuned over millennia. Very little science has been done on the impacts of poaching so many species from their environments all at once.
Defenders offered a series of recommendations to effectively fight the illegal wildlife trade in the US. “By increasing inspection, enforcement and stopping domestic demand, we can have a significant impact on the US black market for imperiled wildlife and wildlife products,” says Clark.
US business owners can insure that products are sourced sustainably — and have supporting paperwork. Tourists and consumers can ask key questions before buying products or food: what is this product made from? Where did it come from? Do I need any special documents or permits to take it home?
Barry says that the Internet may be the single largest vehicle for the illegal sale of contraband wildlife products in the United States. He cautions that people should stay away from buying things on the Internet “because it’s virtually impossible to be able to prove the legality of a product that’s being offered for sale.”
A key item on Defenders’ list of recommendations was the need to allocate federal funding to hire adequate enforcement, and the report uses the port of Los Angeles to illustrate why. There are currently six wildlife inspectors, one canine detection dog and a handler, and a supervisor in Los Angeles that are expected to police two seaports, four airports and several courier facilities. In 2013, they examined 22,409 imported wildlife shipments — but a total of 1.9 million tons of air cargo flew into L.A. that year, along with 5.5 million containers and 3.9 million tons of ocean freight.
The report summarizes the situation at LA’s arrival points: “That likely [means] an untold number of illegal wildlife shipments are going undetected. It is clear from the numbers: the dedicated wildlife inspectors at US ports are overwhelmed and outnumbered by the volume of shipments transiting the United States each year.”
“I think the USFWS is doing the best job they could possibly do, but the resources are just grossly inadequate,” says Barry. “So it’s really up to this country to decide what we’re prepared to prioritize — or not. I would hope that as we become more aware of this problem, we step up and begin to take the steps that are necessary to crack down on, and keep the illegal wildlife trade away from our shores.”