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The Commercial Wildlife Trade: An American Disgrace

Published 09/30/08
By Monica Engebretson, Senior Program Associate & Gil Lamont, Editor/Content Developer
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 39 Number 3, Fall 2008

Captured by the thousands from exotic locations, few wild birds survive the long journey to distant pet markets. Primates, rare reptiles, and other species are traded as “pets” to people who don’t understand these animals’ specialized needs. Bears are slaughtered for their gallbladders and paws. Elephants are murdered for their ivory, and young elephants are forcibly torn from their families to be shipped to far-off zoos. Fox, ermine, mink, and other furbearers are ensnared in barbaric traps to provide fur for fashion.

The breadth of the commercial exploitation of wildlife is astonishing, and the degree of American involvement in this destructive trade is a disgrace.

Legal or illegal, wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry that routinely causes extreme cruelty to individual animals and often threatens the very survival of the species. The illegal trade alone is worth an estimated $5 billion to $20 billion annually, and the Congressional Research Service reports that “the illegal wildlife trade is among the most lucrative illicit economies in the world behind illegal drugs and possibly human trafficking and arms trafficking.”

In this first part of our two-part series on the wildlife trade we examine America’s involvement in this lucrative commerce. The next Animal Issues Digest will expose more broadly the trade’s impact on threatened and endangered species globally.

The Inhumane “Pet” Trade

In the United States the popularity of keeping of rare “pets” — native and non-native — is increasing. On a typical day, nearly 600,000 animals are imported legally into the United States.

Data gathered from legal collectors and traders cannot accurately reveal the total quantity of animals taken from the wild for the pet trade, but illegal import numbers likely parallel or exceed the legal trade.

Delicate animals may be stuffed into tires or vests or false suitcase bottoms by greedy smugglers. They die from shock, stress, suffocation, and inhumane shipping conditions. Their lifeless bodies are simply tossed aside and their deaths are excluded from official counts at ports of export or entry.

Wildlife poaching is pervasive and difficult to control, particularly in areas with poor economies and little law enforcement. Distinguishing legal from illegal specimens is often impossible and the legal trade typically provides a smokescreen behind which poachers operate. Potential profits are so high that bribery, diplomatic immunity, and forged documents are used to bring illegal wildlife to market.

For example, the U.S. is a major importer of live reptiles for the exotic pet trade. Hundreds of reptile species are imported from China, Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and elsewhere — the more rare, the more highly coveted.

Exotic birds are among the most lucrative wildlife commodities. Almost a third of the world’s parrot and cockatoo species is threatened with significant population declines and even extinction due to habitat loss and collection for the pet trade. The wild bird trade remains a critical conservation issue. Thousands of individuals of endangered parrot species are still being smuggled around the world and the U.S. market is a main reason for their capture.

From the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act to the 2003 Captive Wildlife Safety Act, Born Free USA united with API has successfully helped enact federal legislation to reduce the trade in exotic animals as “pets.” Today, we continue these vital efforts in Congress and state legislatures across the country. And, in a significant effort to spare exotic birds specifically, we sponsor National Bird Day. Find out how you can get involved at www.nationalbirdday.org.

Through our groundbreaking investigations into the exotic animal trade, we are working diligently to keep wildlife in the wild and out of pet shops and people’s homes.

The Unconscionable Bear Trade

Across North America, black bears — emblems of America’s “wildness” — have been found with gallbladders removed, paws lopped off, and bodies left to rot, all to satisfy a demand in Asian communities both here and abroad. Historically used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, bear gallbladders and bile increasingly turn up in non-medicinal items such as shampoos and even hemorrhoid creams. The Asiatic black bear is now endangered in the wild as a result of Chinese consumption. Will the same fate ultimately befall its American cousin?

A gallbladder might fetch thousands of dollars on the black market, making it as valuable by weight as gold or illicit drugs. In China and other Southeast Asian countries, endangered bears are incarcerated in coffin-like cages and perpetually “milked” for their bile.

In the U.S., the current patchwork of state laws that address the bear parts trade creates a wildlife law-enforcement nightmare. Thirty-four states prohibit trade in bear gallbladders and bile; five states allow it freely; and the others either have no regulations or restrictions that prohibit trade in bear parts from bears taken within the state but allow commercialization of bear parts if the bear is killed elsewhere. Since it is fundamentally impossible to tell a California bear gallbladder from a Pennsylvania bear gallbladder, this regulatory inconsistency makes national bear protection extremely difficult.

Born Free USA united with API has long championed legislation against the commercialization of bear parts. The Bear Protection Act (currently H.R. 5534 in Congress) would prohibit the import, export, and interstate commerce in bear viscera and products that contain or claim to contain bear viscera. This bill would assist wildlife law-enforcement efforts while creating a sound national policy against the trade in bear gallbladders and bile.

Although twice passed by the Senate in recent years, the bill has been stymied time and again by the National Rifle Association and its associates who defiantly resist any positive movement to protect American wildlife from poachers’ bullets — yet this is an issue not about sport hunting but about poaching and commercializing wildlife.

Born Free USA united with API will continue working tirelessly until bears — whether in America or China — are no longer exploited for sale of their parts. We need you to join in this struggle against wildlife poachers and profiteers. Contact legislation@bornfreeusa.org to find out how.

The Barbaric Fur Trade

In 1863, Charles Darwin called the leghold trap one of the cruelest devices ever invented. “Few men could endure to watch for five minutes an animal struggling in a trap with a torn limb,” he wrote.

Yet despite being banned in scores of other countries, steel-jaw leghold traps, those barbaric and archaic devices, are still widely used in the U.S.

Historically, trapping for fashion fur has led to the decline of a number of species including the lynx, wolverine, long-tailed weasel, sea otter, river otter, gray wolf, and kit fox. Studies have shown that many animals who seem to show little or no injury from traps do not ultimately survive even with quick release.

Although commercial sale of fur pelts generates a low profit margin, it remains a major incentive for many trappers. However, trapping has increasingly become a largely recreational pursuit, with the trap merely replacing the fishing rod or hunting rifle.

Trapping regulations vary widely from state to state and are often poorly enforced. Many states have few restrictions on the type of traps that can be used and the number of animals that can be trapped, how trapped animals are to be killed, and how often trappers must check their traps for dead or maimed animals. Traps are indiscriminate, smashing with bone-crushing force on unsuspecting companion animals, children, or endangered wildlife.

In Minnesota, for example, 13 instances of Canada lynx caught in traps have been reported since the species was granted protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. At least 5 of those animals died. In a recent case, a Federal judge ruled that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is in violation of the ESA for allowing trappers to set traps and snares that catch, injure, and kill Canada lynx. (See “State Ordered to Take New Action to Protect Lynx from Trappers”.)

A similar lawsuit we filed in Maine led to a court-ordered ban on certain body-gripping leghold traps, restrictions on the use of “killer-type” traps, and increased reporting structure for incidentally trapped lynx.

To aid in our legislative and litigation efforts, we track and collect data on the unintended victims of trapping (“non-target animals”). If you see an animal caught in a trap, please let us know through our online reporting form found at www.bornfreeusa.org/trappingreport.

We also work to end the commercial incentive to trap and kill animals for their fur by leading the international fur free retailer program, which educates fashion retailers about the cruelty of fur fashion and encourages them to make a written commitment not to sell real animal fur. Visit www.furfreeshopping.com for more information.

You can help. In addition to taking action via the links in this article, your donation today has a direct effect on our mission to alleviate animal suffering, protect threatened and endangered species in the wild, and encourage everyone to treat wildlife everywhere with respect and compassion. Go to www.bornfreeusa.org/donate or call 1-800-348-7387 x210. And look for Part II: An International Disgrace in our next issue.

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