Illegal wildlife trafficking continues to grow

The contrast could hardly be greater. In close cooperation with animal welfare organizations, cargo airlines are increasingly flying lions and other wild animals freed from captivity back to their natural habitats, such as Qatar Cargo with its rewilding program or Turkish and KLM Cargo for similar reasons. At the same time, the illegal trade in animal species that are under strict protection or even threatened with extinction, is on the rise. Units of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection have now uncovered two cases of such practices. Despite intensive controls at airports in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, these occur daily in a similar form but go unnoticed.

Los Angeles Airport, the fourth busiest in the country, is a major U.S. gateway for illegal wildlife trafficking, but it’s not the only one. From 01OCT23 through to 15MAY24, CBP officers and agriculture specialists seized 4,227 animal and plant products for violating wildlife and plant laws and regulations, as well as international endangered species conventions. The seized products include crocodile skulls, live baby crocodiles, turtle skulls and skins, kangaroo meat, elephant toenails, exotic butterflies, shells, coral, sea cucumbers and shark cartilage, among other imports. The confiscated products arrived in individual packages via air mail or as undeclared parts of larger air freight consignments from Singapore, Vietnam, Australia, China, Thailand, U.K., Mexico, and Peru. The contraband packages were heading to addresses spread across the United States.

Crocodile skin wallets are one of the most trafficked items  –  photos: courtesy U.S. Customs and Boder Protection

Increase in violations despite high penalties
Illegal wildlife trafficking is one of the most profitable natural resource crimes,” states Andrew H. Douglas, CBP Port Director of Los Angeles International Airport. “It encompasses the harvesting and selling of wildlife and wildlife products, to be used as medicine, fashion, food, or pets sold to consumers.” Many of these violations of illegal wildlife trafficking occur out of ignorance. Tourists are offered exotic products at local markets in Latin America, Asia, or Africa, such as attractive handbags made from crocodile skin or carvings made from the wood of protected trees. The items look good, comply with the trade regulations of the respective country (traders assure their customers from overseas), are reasonably priced and are ideal as souvenirs that remind their buyers of a nice vacation. This makes it all the more surprising for travelers when they are checked at immigration and charged with violating the Endangered Species Act by the CBP squads. The product is also taken from them and used as evidence.

Philadelphia seized Portuguese butterflies

Gang-related criminality
In addition to these violations, there is also large-scale criminal trade in animals or animal products. This is organized in a mafia-like way around the globe and usually generates high profits. Those who urgently need an aphrodisiac to supposedly increase their potency, are often willing to spend large sums on rhino horn processed into flour. Although the poachers who killed the rhino in Africa only receive a tiny amount of this money, the species is coming ever closer to extinction.

Collecting frenzy also promotes wildlife trafficking
Some collectors of exotic beetle and butterfly species also tend to violate animal welfare laws as just evidenced in Philadelphia. There, CBP controllers intercepted a parcel that contained 60 dead butterflies coming from Portugal and destined for Wayne County in Pennsylvania. The electronically transmitted shipment documents indicated the contents of the package unspecific as “pieces of silk to be used in works.” Missing were import certifications, invoices, or other documentation that would have declared the scientific species names or the purpose for this shipment. The consignee now faces legal and financial repercussions. “Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists have a very challenging and critical mission, and that is to protect our vital agricultural resources against the accidental or deliberate introduction of invasive insect pests, and plant and animal diseases that could harm our nation’s economic vitality,” said Tater Ortiz, CBP’s Director for the Area Port of Philadelphia.

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