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Shark fins, Manta ray gills, live birds, fish swim-bladder, and sea turtle meat. What do all these items have in common? They’re all traded illegally around the world on the wildlife black market. And if we’re to conserve our planet’s biodiversity for future generations, we’ve got to slow the tide of poaching and trafficking, starting here at home.

America plays a crucial role in the fight against wildlife trafficking. Wildlife trafficking is one of the most lucrative forms of illegal activity, with an estimated annual global value of $7 billion to $23 billion. The United States is generally accepted as one of the largest consumers of illegal wildlife and wildlife products worldwide. In fact, much of the world’s trade in illegal wildlife is either driven by U.S. consumers or passes through U.S. ports on its way to other destinations.

Wildlife Trafficking in the United States: The Numbers

Defenders of Wildlife has spent the last year analyzing wildlife trade data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Law Enforcement Management Information System – arguably the most comprehensive wildlife trade database in the world – in an effort to comprehend not only the volume of illegal wildlife and wildlife products entering the United States, but consumer demand and trade route patterns as well.

Between 2005 and 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement detected 49,334 illegal wildlife shipments attempting to enter the United States. These shipments contained at least 5.5 million individual wildlife parts and products, over 660,000 individual animals and more than 4.8 million pounds of meat, fins, and caviar.  The United States is a key player in the world of wildlife trafficking not only for the volume of wildlife and wildlife items but also the role it plays as a transit country. American consumer demand and lack of enforcement capacity is certainly contributing to the illegal wildlife trade.

With an eye towards what Americans are doing to contribute to the illegal wildlife trade, we looked carefully at where illegal wildlife shipments are attempting to enter the United States, what kinds of parts or products are inside those shipments, and what kinds of animals are most afflicted by illegal trade. Using this information, we hope to educate American citizens about the roles they could be playing, both as consumers and as observers of wildlife trade here in the United States.

The ports of entry that saw the highest number of illegal wildlife shipments were San Francisco, Anchorage, and El Paso. While San Francisco and Anchorage are both designated by the Fish and Wildlife Service as ports that allow the import and export of wildlife, El Paso is not a designated port for the movement of wildlife.

We also looked at what kinds of parts and products are entering the United States at the highest volumes. We used volume as the measurement instead of counting the number of shipments that contained a certain type of product as a way to more accurately measure the size of the demand for particular products. For example, one shipment could contain 50 items. In gauging the demand of that item, it was more accurate to count the 50 items, rather than the single shipment. In this way, we found that meat was by far the type of wildlife product in highest demand. Over 3.3 million pounds of meat was discovered in the ten years of data, mostly mollusk meat. Other products in high demand were fins (1.5 million pounds), medicinal products (889,000), feathers (884,000), and products made from shells (556,000).

Another important aspect of our research was to identify the kinds of animals most often found in illegal trade. In terms of parts and products, the most afflicted animals were mollusks, sharks, seals, and peacocks. In terms of live animals, the most afflicted animals were tropical fish, freshwater turtles, corals, and pythons. Seeing how the targeted animals change depending on the purpose for which they are traded is important for educating consumers on which products and live animals are most likely to be illegally imported.

How We Can Stop Wildlife Trafficking in the United States

Consumer demand remains the most important driver of wildlife trafficking. Thus, raising awareness amongst consumers and even non-consumers is important in helping people wake up to the unpleasant truth: illegal wildlife is offered for sale in the United States. Pointing out wildlife products that are frequently imported illegally helps educate consumers and empower them to ask for documentation before purchasing.

In addition to being a consumer country, the United States is also a transit point for trafficked wildlife moving from range and source countries to other markets around the globe. We need to increase funding, resources and capacity for Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors working at our ports of entry so that the U.S. can gather more data and detect more illegal shipments entering and transiting the country. Reducing U.S. demand in combination with increasing U.S. law enforcement at our ports of entry would have a waterfall effect, diminishing one of the highest demand markets and stemming the use of the United States as a transit point.

Furthermore, Americans should Support ongoing efforts from state bans on the sale and purchase of imperiled wildlife products, such as the ballot initiative in Oregon supported by the Save Endangered Animals Oregon coalition. These state bans on the sale and purchase of imperiled wildlife products will really address the consumption of these goods.

What Defenders of Wildlife is Doing to Put an End to the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Defenders of Wildlife is continuing to analyze the data provided by LEMIS. Following the release of our report last fall, Combating Wildlife Trafficking from Latin America to the United States, we have been periodically posting new factsheets summarizing different aspect of the data on our website.

Wildlife trafficking is a serious international crisis. But with more effort and resources, American’s, with the help of our nation’s wildlife agencies, can reduce demand and thwart the illegal wildlife trade in the United States, and in doing so, make a difference for species around the world.

Lead image source: Racing Extinction/Facebook