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In a 2016 survey, 80% of Americans said they support wildlife conservation measures, but 80% of Americans aren't aware of the illegal wildlife trade in the U.S. An August 25, 2020 headline from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reads, “Hummingbird Trafficker Pleads Guilty”. This is just one of 10 wildlife trafficking cases, so far in 2020, described on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Office of Law Enforcement, web site. The FWS defines wildlife trafficking as “the poaching or other taking of protected or managed species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their related parts and products.” Hummingbirds are just one of the species trafficked. Others include sharks, turtles, fish, song birds, and the body parts of dead and protected species including rhinos, lions, tigers, leopards, snakes, and crocodiles. The true stories of wildlife trafficking are deeply disturbing and depict a corrupt, selfish world of wildlife traffickers that -- in many cases – are linked to other large-scale criminal activity.
Think wildlife trafficking only occurs in obscure, shabby places where people are desperate or just lack information about wildlife laws? Nope. In 2018, a 66-year-old shop owner in the upscale community of Middleburg, Virginia, only an hour outside of Washington DC, pled guilty to illegally smuggling items made from endangered animals and other protected species and then selling them in his quaint Middleburg, Virginia shop. He forfeited $275,000, 175 illegal wildlife products, and he’s out of business.
Maybe you’re like me. I don’t particularly like to hear bad news like this. But however uncomfortable it is, and whether you’re a wildlife lover or not, we need to hear these stories. We want to be on the right side of wildlife conservation and protection and speak up for wildlife. When it comes to the horrific and inhumane business of wildlife trafficking, information is power. Read on for understanding what wildlife trafficking is, what laws govern it, what’s being done about it, and things we can all do to help.
What is Wildlife Trafficking?
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) defines wildlife trafficking as “the poaching or other taking of protected or managed species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their related parts and products.” Wildlife trafficking is a $10-$20 billion-a-year industry that is pushing many endangered species to the brink of extinction.
Illegal wildlife products can include jewelry, traditional medicine, clothing, furniture, and souvenirs, as well as some exotic pets. For wildlife, trafficking often means pain, stress, death, and prolonged abuse and mistreatment.
Here’s a few highlights from wildlife trafficking cases that FWS announced in 2020 (up to this blog date):
January 2, 2020 – “Amherst Man Charged With Trafficking Exotic Cats. A federal grand jury has returned an indictment charging a 38-year-old Amherst, NY, man with violating the Lacey Act and the U.S. Animal Welfare Act based on his alleged trafficking of African wild cats in interstate commerce. The charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The indictment alleges that the defendant, doing business as ExoticCubs.com, imported and sold dozens of caracals and servals in interstate commerce between February and June of 2018. Caracals, also known as the “desert lynx,” are wild cats native to Africa, and grow to approximately 45 pounds. Servals, also wild cats native to Africa, grow to approximately 40 pounds. Both species are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and their commercial possession and sale is restricted under New York state law. The defendant is also charged with disguising his commercial activity by falsely declaring the animals as domesticated breeds, such as savannah cats and bengal cats, on shipping records. People and businesses dealing in animals are required to comply with humane care standards under the Animal Welfare Act. The defendant is alleged to have failed to do so, and to have failed to secure the necessary license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The defendant is charged with violating the Animal Welfare Act for selling animals without a license showing minimum compliance with humane treatment standards.”
July 9, 2020 – “Texas Man Pleaded Guilty to Trafficking Illegal Wildlife Worth Millions. A Texas man pleaded guilty on charges of conspiring to traffic thousands of live reptiles, amphibians, and birds, valued in excess of $3.5 million. The investigation exposed a highly coordinated wildlife trafficking ring responsible for the smuggling of wild caught reptiles destined to collectors and the commercial trade across the U.S. and globe. The number of animals suspected of being smuggled is in the tens of thousands. According to documents filed with the court, beginning in 2016, the FWS undertook Operation Bale Out, an investigation of a network of individuals involved in the trafficking of wildlife between the United States and Mexico. “Bale” means a group of turtles, and much of the wildlife trafficked by this network involved rare turtles.”
August 25, 2020 -- “Hummingbird Trafficker Pleads Guilty. A Dallas [Texas] mystic shop owner pleaded guilty to trafficking dried hummingbird carcasses in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The shop owner, 48, pleaded guilty to the sale of wildlife taken in violation of federal law. The owner admitted to selling dried hummingbird carcasses known as “chuparosas” without a valid permit or authorization. “Chuparosas” are believed by some to have mystical benefits and are commonly used as amulets or charms. The hummingbird, a migratory bird, is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Pursuant to Federal regulations, it is illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, or sell a hummingbird, or its parts, nests, or eggs, except under the terms of a valid permit. The shop owner admitted the dried hummingbird carcasses she acquired were illegally imported and smuggled into the United States from Mexico. Without a valid permit or authorization, the shop owner offered the dried hummingbird carcasses for sale in her store. She further admitted to both possessing and selling dozens of dried hummingbird carcasses of different species each of which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.”
September 3, 2020 – “Operation Apex Shuts Down Operation that Profited from Shark Finning, Much More. An international conspiracy that profited from drug trafficking and the illegal wildlife trade and conspired to hide the illegal nature of the proceeds has been shut down in a multi-agency law enforcement operation. Initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Operation Apex brought together multiple agencies under the umbrella of the Organized Crime Drug Task Forces (OCDETF) to target two businesses, in Florida and California, and a dozen individual defendants whose activities included international trade in illegal wildlife products, trafficking in marijuana, and a money laundering conspiracy to disguise the massive proceeds of the unlawful activities that spanned at least a 10-year period. As alleged in the 37-page indictment, conspirators in multiple locations in the United States, including the Southern District of Georgia, and in Hong Kong, Mexico, Canada, and elsewhere, were involved in the Wu transnational criminal organization that engaged in wildlife trafficking, shark finning, drug trafficking and money laundering. Shark finning is aimed at supporting the demand for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. Certain species of sharks are protected wildlife under federal and state law to ensure their continued sustainability. The indictment alleges that the conspiracy began as early as 2010 as members of the conspiracy submitted false documents and used sham businesses and dozens of bank accounts to hide proceeds from the illegal activities. The indictment states that members of the conspiracy would deposit bulk cash from illegal activities, including wildlife trafficking and drug trafficking, into third-party business accounts that dealt in gold, precious metals, and jewels, to hide the illegal activities. Conspirators also deposited millions of dollars from illegal activities into third-party business accounts located in the United States, Mexico, and Hong Kong, in an effort to hide the illegal profits. During the arrests of the defendants and searches of their homes and workplaces, agents seized more than $3.9 million in multiple bank accounts; approximately $3 million in gold, silver, and other precious metals, along with $1 million in diamonds; approximately 18,000 marijuana plants and 34.5 pounds of processed marijuana; multiple firearms; and documented the harvest of more than six tons of shark fins. Agents also seized 18 totoaba fish bladders, a delicacy in Asia harvested illegally from an endangered species.
What Are the Laws or Other Agreements About Wildlife Trade or Trafficking?
There are quite a few laws. As with any law, governments or other organizations charged with implementing and enforcing the law must have the resources, and will, to do so.
CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
The purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems they depend on. The FWS and the U.S. Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) administers the ESA.
Also administered by the FWS, under the Lacey Act, it’s unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase fish, wildlife or plants that are taken, possessed, transported, or sold: 1) in violation of U.S. or Indian law, or 2) in interstate or foreign commerce involving any fish, wildlife, or plants taken possessed or sold in violation of State or foreign law. The law covers all fish and wildlife and their parts or products, plants protected by the CITES and those protected by State law.
All marine mammals are protected under the MMPA. The MMPA prohibits, with certain exceptions, the "take" of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, and the importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the U.S. Jurisdiction for MMPA is shared by FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the take (including killing, capturing, selling, trading, and transport) of protected migratory bird species without prior authorization by the FWS. The list of migratory bird species protected by law is primarily based on bird families and species included in four international treaties. You can find the list of birds in the Code of Federal Regulations under Title 50 Part 10.13 (10.13 list). The 10.13 list was updated in 2020.
Due to the European Single Market and the absence of systematic border controls within the EU, the provisions of the CITES have to be implemented uniformly in all EU Member States. CITES is implemented in the EU through a set of Regulations known as the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations.
In the United States, there has been bipartisan support in the Executive and Legislative branches of government for preventing and prosecuting wildlife trafficking.
What Organizations and Groups Study, Enforce or Monitor Wildlife Trafficking?
There are multiple national and international government organizations, non-profits, and other non-governmental, private organizations that study, monitor, enforce, and educate on wildlife trafficking. Some, like the FWS, were highlighted above. Several others with varying responsibilities, missions, and authority, are listed below. Click their links for information and resources.
How Do We Stop Wildlife Trafficking?
There’s things we can all do. First, speak up for wildlife and know how to spot a wildlife crime. Here are some tips from the FWS
“Trust your gut to know when things just don’t seem right. This happened to a woman in Minnesota while she was on a bike ride and saw someone putting Blanding’s turtles in their trunk. She knew that these mild-mannered turtles are protected and extremely vulnerable during breeding season as they move to nesting habitat to lay eggs. She reported the vehicle’s license plate number and other identifiable information to an officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and her tip ultimately helped to uncover a multistate, illegal trafficking scheme based in Wisconsin. The man involved pleaded guilty to a felony Lacey Act violation, served time in prison and paid heavy fines. During the investigation, officers recovered an incubator with 120 native map, painted and softshell turtle eggs that he had illegally collected in the wild. This wildlife trafficker also left an incriminating digital footprint, using online retailers to traffic additional wild reptile and amphibian species. Just one person speaking for a couple of turtles made a positive impact on local wildlife.” In this case, FWS was able to recognize her contributions with a $1,500 reward through the Lacey Act Reward Account, all while maintaining her anonymity.
Know the laws that protect wildlife. Many bird species native to the US, including their nests and eggs are protected under the MBTA (see above). Knowing what’s in season under state and tribal law is important too, because poaching isn’t the only wildlife crime, hunting out of season and falsifying records are also criminal offenses. Ethical hunters and anglers respect the biological reasoning behind bag limits and speak up when something doesn’t seem right.
The website WildLeaks has made this a little easier. WildLeaks, is the world’s first whistleblowing initiative dedicated to environmental crime. WildLeaks is set up to receive and evaluate anonymous information and tips regarding environmental/wildlife crime, and transform that information into concrete action, and possible actionable intelligence. WildLeaks has a “safe space” online, built on the Tor technology, a secure and anonymous platform so that people with information can share that information without taking personal risks, particularly in highly corrupt countries.
Here's some more considerations
When you travel outside of the United States think about what you’re buying. When purchasing souvenirs or gifts, think about where that item might have come from. Does it contain wildlife products? If so, is it a species that is endangered or threatened? Was the animal harvested sustainably? Was it produced legally? One of the main ways to limit the illegal wildlife trade is to stop the demand for wildlife products. If you don’t know, don’t buy.
Final Word: “Conservation ultimately comes down to people and their behaviors toward nature. Just as people are often the source of environmental problems, they are equally the potential solution.” https://rare.org/report/behavior-change-for-nature/
Sources and Other References