By James McWilliams
Gall bladders, Tibetan antelope wool, musk pods, ivory tusks, pounds and pounds of frog fat—these are just some of the items being smuggled into the U.S. that are, among other things, dangerous to our health.
Smugglers of illegal animals and animal products will go to considerable lengths to obscure their booty. Customs officers have found exotic reptiles secreted inside everything from hollowed out books to prosthetic legs to ceramic garden gnomes. Authorities once flushed out 44 birds from a wicker tube strapped to a gentleman’s leg. They’ve discovered dried seahorses floating inside bags of chili peppers. Ivory has been painted to resemble wood or marble. Bird eggs have been found concealed in tiny pockets woven into the crotch of one intrepid smuggler’s underpants.
When you step back and consider the situation, the trade in illegal animal products appears to be a multi-billion dollar game of hide-and-seek. The problem is that few people are yelling, “Ready or not, here I come!” Even for legal wildlife, the federal government employs less than a couple hundred agents to keep track of hundreds of millions of importations.
Although it's the world's second largest illicit business (behind only narcotics), little is known about the trade in illegal wildlife. Given that these animals predominantly come from ecologically bountiful regions of Southeast Asia, the most common response to the exotic animal trade centers on its widespread impact on global biodiversity.
The World Wildlife Fund warns that the traffic in illegal animal products is “threatening to overturn decades of conservation gains.” FREELAND, an organization dedicated to reducing both human and wildlife trafficking across Asia, notes how “unchecked nature crime not only ravages biodiversity, but the knock-on effects can unravel entire ecosystems.” With the United States alone having imported over 1.5 billion live animals since 2000, in addition to untold amounts of animal extracts, according to a 2010 study in Ecohealth, this focus makes perfect sense.
But what’s easily missed in an exclusive emphasis on biodiversity loss is the illegal animal trade’s potential impact on global “pathogen pollution.” Based on limited evidence from seized product, it appears that the black market in alien animals deals in a seemingly endless catalog of strange cargo—everything from gall bladders to Tibetan antelope wool to musk pods to ivory tusks to pounds and pounds of frog fat. “If you think of it,” one scientist who monitors the trade told the Associated Press, “you can get it.” More....