by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
We’re Number Two, Here in the Greater Toronto
It was about 15 or more years ago that my mother, the late Phyllis E. MacKay, was joined by myself and our friend, Liz White, for what turned into an unlikely but ultimately successful preliminary criminal investigation.
We visited a large “cage bird” show held in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto, and open to the public. In a huge arena we walked past row after row of birds in cages, on stands or in portable aviaries. It was my mom who first thought things were not quite right. She had an instinct for that sort of thing and drew my attention to several exhibitors. Here were a lot of red siskins, a species that is endangered in the wild, largely because of the demands of the caged bird industry. There were other species we weren’t used to seeing in pet stores. So we split up, so as not to draw attention to what we were doing, and began to discreetly take notes and talk to people, and later met to consolidate our findings.
Liz then called a contact at the Canadian Wildlife Service to report our findings and concerns. A few years later the news broke: A group of smugglers on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border were charged with illegally smuggling out 3,882 “tropical finches,” and smuggling in another 456 “tropical finches” plus 30 parakeets and 20 mynas, all without the appropriate documentation required by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It was touted as the largest wildlife smuggling bust in Canada at the time. The dealers charged pled guilty. They had operated in southern Ontario, near border crossings into the United States at Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and at Windsor and Detroit.
For sheer volume that bust was dwarfed by the largest confiscation of illegal wildlife products ever smuggled into Canada, in Montreal, in 2007. More than 27 metric tons (the meat of between 789,000 and 1.05 million individual animals) were smuggled into Canada, some to be sold there, the rest reshipped to the United States. The species? Queen conchs, a beautiful shellfish from the West Indies and northern South America that is rapidly decreasing because of demand for its meat and shells. The meat was renamed “whelk meat” to get around laws and regulations. The whelk is common and not protected. Another 2,100 pounds of queen conchs, also called pink conchs, were confiscated in Buffalo, NY. Both these operations and many others involved co-operative efforts between U.S. and Canadian authorities.
Toronto, with the country’s largest international airport located nearby, in the Greater Toronto Region (GTA), has always been touted as the country’s major hub for wildlife smuggling. That has changed since 9/11, when what was once proudly the world’s longest undefended border started to become very defended indeed! Even legal commerce, let alone smuggling, has been adversely affected by U.S. concerns of terrorism and subsequent dramatic increase in border “security.”
That’s probably one of various reasons why the top location for wildlife smuggling in Canada has shifted from the GTA to Vancouver, a port city connected by the Pacific Ocean to Asia, where there is extremely high demand for many wildlife products, legal and illegal. In August, Canadians caught a China-bound traveller with three paws from a black bear in his carry-on luggage. X-rays of the bag revealed what at first looked like the bones of human hands.
Last year there were 209 import and export seizures in Vancouver, more than twice the number in Toronto, now the second largest hub for wildlife smuggling in Canada. From 2006 to 2010 Vancouver’s lower mainland and nearby city of Richmond saw seizures of 224 pounds of sea cucumbers and 30,000 pieces of ivory.
But Canada is not just importing illegal wildlife. Canada’s native wildlife is being poached and smuggled overseas, with bears, raccoons, coyotes, wolves, eagles and other wildlife in demand, in whole, or parts and pieces. And not just to China. Last year a border “blitz” between Canada and the Yukon discovered, in just two weeks, 23 incidences of wildlife smuggling between our two countries, involving walruses, sea otters, bears, coyote and even a bowhead whale.
I have great admiration for the people who seek to intercept illegal wildlife entering or leaving Canada, or any other country, but they can only scratch the surface. They need our help. Be informed. Be suspicious, and if you have any doubts, file a report. The world’s wildlife need all the help they can get.