We’ve known that trafficking of endangered species has been a global problem for some time now, but a recent series of busts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Southern California and Nevada suggests dealing in protected species (and their parts) has a widespread Web presence. While that’s really not surprising, what is shocking is how quickly the black market moves online.
According to Erin Dean, resident agent in charge of the Torrance, CA office of the FWS, her team made purchases within 24 hours of starting Operation Cyberwild. The operation, which started last July, is being run by FWS and the Department of Fish and Game, and has help from the Humane Society of America whose volunteers do much of the Internet scouring for sellers of illegal wares. So far it has netted 12 individuals, including a Las Vegas man selling boots made out of threatened sea turtles. So far federal officials have recovered live endangered fish, protected migratory birds, and an elephant foot. They’ve also found pelts from a tiger, a polar bear, a leopard, and a bear. What was once a word-of-mouth market has exploded thanks to the ease and anonymity of web dealing.
"Our ecosystem is complex and precious. Unfortunately, this delicate system continues to face serious threats, including poaching, the introduction of non-native species and the illegal sale of endangered species," United States Attorney André Birotte, Jr. said. "The sale of endangered animals on the Internet has reached an alarming level, with as much as two-thirds of such sales taking place in the United States. These Internet sales of wildlife fuel poaching and make the killing of protected animals more profitable. Today's prosecutions are a response to this alarming trend."
Citing a study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the L.A. Times wrote that “about 70 percent of illegal sales of wildlife worldwide take place in the United States.” While despite the United States propping up the worldwide market for illegal wildlife, it’s not an issue that gets much legal attention, which may be why the majority of those busted in this recent round of stings were hawking their goods on Craigslist rather than using even a modicum of precaution. So while it’s good to see arrests being made, the fact that a dozen people with big-ticket items were found and arrested so easily suggests that, on online retail sites like Craigslist, the market for illicit wildlife is pervasive.