When it comes to newsworthy stories about the illegal wildlife industry, Chinese demand for ivory or rhino horn tends to grab headlines. But often overlooked is American demand for illegal goods, which is fueling an enormous amount of wildlife trafficking in Central and South America.
Some 81,526 pounds of illegally traded wildlife were seized between 2004 and 2013, according to a report by the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. The most popular animals on the illegal market were queen conch, sea turtles, caimans, crocodiles, and iguanas. Officials also seized 47,914 pounds of illegal wildlife products, like meat, eggs, shoes, and leather goods.
The report is the first report to use extensive US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) data to quantify the size of the illegal wildlife trade between Latin America and the United States.
"Illegal markets often mirror legal markets," Rosa Indenbaum, co-author of the report, said. "The US is an economic powerhouse and it consumes the most resources at one of the fastest rates, so it's no surprise that the same goes for illegal products as well."
Defenders of Wildlife values the illegal wildlife industry at $7-23 billion per year globally, making it one of the most lucrative illegal activities in the world. The legal wildlife trade in the United States, according to the group, is estimated to be $6 billion annually, with illegal trade estimated to total $2 billion each year.
"As you might imagine, it's hard to get firm numbers on the amount of illegal trade, because whatever you've found, that's only the tip of the iceberg of what's really happening," co-author Alejandra Goyenechea said.
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Of 328 US ports of entry, only 64 are currently subject to FWS wildlife inspections, according to the study.
Nearly half of all exports of illegal wildlife to the United States originate in Mexico. Haiti and El Salvador round out the top three exporters. Forty percent of illegal shipments from Latin America entered the United States through Miami and El Paso.
One of the reasons for Latin America's robust trade is its immense bounty of flora and fauna, said Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator at TRAFFIC, another wildlife conservation group.
"Wildlife crime and associated trafficking in Africa and Asia has tended to dominate the headlines, with the trade in the Americas in particular being rather sidelined," Thomas said. "However, Central America and South America are both endowed with very significant natural resources, which are of course exploited, both legally and with associated illegal trade."
The report recommends increased inspection fees in order to fund a greater number of inspections, more personnel, and better training.
Edward Grace, deputy chief of law enforcement at FWS, would not comment specifically on the report, but said more resources could improve enforcement.
"Our agents and inspectors are on the front lines of this fight and doing everything they can with limited resources to catch offenders, break up criminal networks, and stanch the flow of illicit animal products," he said. "The more well-trained, dedicated officers we have, the more we will be able to do."
Yet, despite a 2013 executive order from President Barack Obama aimed at stepping up enforcement of wildlife regulations, the number of wildlife inspectors nationwide actually decreased from 140 to 130 in 2014, according to the Defenders of Wildlife report.
"It's far too often that the role of the United States as a consumer country is left out of the equation," Indenbaum said. "Because we talk about wildlife trafficking as if it's just happening thousands of miles away, but actually it's happening in the United States every day."
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