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Serious Business

A rare toucan bought from a local in Honduras for $5 can fetch $2,000 in the United States. Certain snakes and turtles from Madagascar, bought for less than a dollar, can fetch in the low five figures on the black market. For monkeys, apes and chimpanzees that sell for a few hundred dollars in certain Asian countries, they can fetch as much as $75,000 in the UK and other places.

Second only to drug trafficking, the smuggling of endangered animal species is a major, illegal international business. There is a huge worldwide demand for endangered creatures and the sales rack up to upwards of $10 billion per year. Much like high-line drug dealers, organized rings of animal smugglers have highly sophisticated operations. They use boats to sneak into ports of the United States and other affluent countries at night. Often they come in with a few hundred thousand dollars worth of animals at a time. The laws are set up as such that if they get caught and it’s their first offense, they likely will not even do time.

The illegal trafficking of animals is an extremely serious concern because such activity results in disruption of local eco-systems. On top of that, animals sold on the black market are rarely well cared for and often suffer cruelty at the hands of their captors. Many die in transit.

Unfortunate Trade

One of the major factors that feed the endangered species black market is the poverty in foreign countries. Smugglers rely on poor locals to gather up animals for their trade. They pay the locals a nominal fee for their work, which to them is enough to feed their families.

In places like Madagascar, many of the poor are not educated enough to know that their part in the animal trade is contributing to the devastation of the environment. The fact is even if they did know, saving a wild animal would be of far less concern than feeding their family. Many locals have been involved in the animal gathering and selling business their entire lives. Wildlife officials are aware of the hierarchy of trade and there is some sympathy for the poor who are involved. Their real concern is to catch the smugglers who buy these animals for a few dollars and then turn them over for a huge profit. The problem is, the most successful smugglers are extremely sophisticated and operate in highly covert ways. The biggest smuggling operations usually involve bribery of officials, forgery of documents that take advantage of loopholes in smuggling laws and a vast network of smugglers so organized that if one person goes down, there are 10 others who can step in to take their place.

One of the biggest problems with smuggling is the extreme toll that is inflicted on the animals during transport. Smugglers often come up with outlandish ways to hide animals from officials. Often these methods don’t take into consideration the health and well being of the animals and many end up perishing from dehydration, starvation or otherwise lack of proper attention to their needs. Wildlife officials have found snakes inside the linings of coat pockets, turtles packed with coffee grounds and chimpanzees crammed into the tiniest boxes. Even though the death rate for smuggled animals is high, the profits made from the surviving animals are more than enough to make up for the losses.

The black market trade of endangered animals has devastated some of the world’s most beautiful and diverse eco-regions. In certain cases, it is unlikely that any attempts at reversing the damage will be good enough.

Paradise Lost

There was a time only a few decades ago when Cambodia was a wildlife paradise, rich with thick forests and all the exotic animals that generally accompany such terrain.

Today, the country is struggling to maintain its natural riches, thanks in huge part to the rampant wildlife trade that exists. The Chinese have long valued exotic animals for their perceived medicinal properties and Cambodia has willingly been their number one supplier. The going rate in China is extremely high, for everything from parrots and porcupines to boars and tigers. The animals are slaughtered and their various body parts, when ingested or used externally, are said to have healing abilities for a number of ailments and conditions. Tiger penises are cooked in soup and thought to increase male virility. The bile from the gall bladders of bears is used for a number of products including shampoo and aphrodisiac potions. It is believed that Cambodia has less than a 1,000 of each of these creatures left in existence. Plenty of other native creatures including elephants and Siamese crocodiles are also threatened by extinction.

Both the U.S. government and the World Wildlife Fund have offered Cambodia financial support in order to create a sanctuary in the Cardamom Mountains for numerous animals.    

Breaking the Cycle

The international trafficking of endangered animals is a major concern for those who desire to protect the integrity of eco-systems throughout the world. It is also a strong point of interest for animal rights advocates who believe in the humane treatment of these creatures.

There is no doubt that major environmental protection agencies throughout the world are well aware of the dire situation of these animals. Only time will tell if they are willing to ratchet up the laws and penalties for trafficking, follow through on enforcement and break the vicious cycle that allows these endangered species to perish.