By Thad Moore
COMMERCE CITY — U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman walked past taxidermied tigers, shelves stacked with leopard heads and dismembered elephants' feet. A week after announcing efforts to stem the illegal animal trade, he called the collection "overwhelming."
Froman, the nation's top trade negotiator and an adviser to President Barack Obama, was walking through a warehouse at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, where about 1.5 million such items are stored.
The repository, the only one in the U.S., has seen an uptick in recent years, said Doni Sprague, wildlife repository specialist at the Fish and Wildlife Service. Roughly 36,000 items — most seized at U.S. border crossings — were added last year.
The visit, Froman said, underscored the need to slow the trade, which the Obama administration said in February it would try to do.
The administration said the animal trail has been used in recent years to fund terrorist groups like al-Shabab, al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia, and the Lord's Resistance Army, believed to be in central Africa.
"There's huge amounts of money in the wildlife trade," said Steve Oberholtzer, special agent in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mountain-Prairie region.
The U.S. plans to use its negotiations with other countries — particularly in Asia and Europe — to try to slow the trade, which is worth billions of dollars, Froman announced last week. The administration has also said it will ramp up enforcement and work to reduce demand.
That effort begins with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement being negotiated with 11 other countries, mostly in the Asia-Pacific, Froman said. A half dozen more countries are interested in joining, he said.
"Part of the goal of (the partnership) is to raise the standards of environmental protection generally — that this becomes a new global standard, that through trade agreements, we ought to be dealing with issues like this," Froman said.
The U.S. expects to work toward a similar deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, with European countries over the next year.
If successful, the two agreements would cover two-thirds of the global economy.
Still, they wouldn't cover China, where the illegal animal trade has boomed as that country's middle class as grown. The U.S. and China aren't currently negotiating, a spokesman for the trade representative said.
How much of the illegal animal trade is seized by law enforcement isn't clear, Oberholtzer said, but it's "nowhere near" the total that flows throughout the world.
Elephant poaching peaked in 2011, when more than 25,000 were killed, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Last year, more than 20,000 were killed.
And demand for rhinos is soaring, Oberholtzer said. More than 1,000 were killed last year in South Africa, which has the world's largest rhino population; that's an increase of 50 percent.
"You're going to need more warehouse space," Froman said.
"Not if you're successful, ambassador," an aide quipped back.