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Publication date: Mar. 19, 2008

WILDLIFE THREATENED BY ORGANIZED CRIME, MAYBE EVEN TERRORISTS

Your editor likely is interested in a story that covers terrorism, drug trafficking, smuggling, border security, weak inspections at ports of entry, and Internet stings. Throw in the decimation of endangered wildlife, and you have the topic of illegal wildlife trade, the focus of a US House Natural Resources Committee hearing March 5, 2008:Though security and crime topics are of high public interest, it's tough to find the specific players in these cases - the people killing the wildlife, the people who use the illicit money to buy weapons and influence, and the consumers who support the dirty business by buying the illegal animal products.

Consumers in China and the US are widely considered to be the leading purchasers. It's estimated that the majority of purchases are legal, making it hard for consumers to know if they are supporting illegal trade.

Actual arrests are limited, but police and customs officials around the world are guessing that the illegal trade could be generating more than $20 billion every year. It's unknown how much of that may go toward terrorists, drug traffickers, and other organized crime groups, but there is substantial evidence that they are reaping significant sums.

One important resource for the Committee hearing was a Congressional Research Service report that was requested by Committee chair Nick Rahall (D-WV).

The report says that some of the most lucrative deals involve tiger parts, caviar, elephant ivory, rhino horn, and exotic birds and reptiles. Some animals are sold live, and can transmit diseases known to threaten people, such as Ebola virus and tuberculosis.

Some of the animals are killed or captured in the US, including leopard sharks in California, mussels in the Midwest and Southeast, eels in East Coast waters, coral reef organisms in the Florida Keys, and turtles from all over the country.

There are a number of US and international laws on the books, and agencies in place, that can be used to reduce trade in these and other animals and their parts. But funding, enforcement, data sharing, interagency cooperation, and education of the buying public have been modest at best.

Much of the illegal business is done over the Internet. Other purchasing is done by tourists buying products that they may think, or are told, are legal. Additional demand comes from "traditional medicine" practices that use products from animals such as bears, seals, tigers, and leopards.

There are many more sources for experts, story ideas, incidents, investigations, and background information, including:


Last revised January 22, 2013

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