3 March 2020

Illegal wildlife trade in the US: Bears and crocodiles are popular - ivory and tiger skins are on the wane


More than ever, American buyers are on the hunt for illegal wildlife and wild animal parts. Research from the University of Copenhagen has demonstrated that bear trophies, crocodiles and exotic birds are coveted in the United States, while the trade in elephant and large cats has declined.

Credit: Getty Images

The illegal trafficking of wildlife and wild animal parts is the fourth largest form of criminality in the world, and a major threat to global biodiversity. The United States is one of the world's largest markets for wildlife products – both legally and illegally traded. Both segments have grown over the past decades according to a study headed by the University of Copenhagen.

UCPH researchers investigated the development of the US trade in wildlife products from 1979-2014. They discovered an increase in the number of illegal wildlife products confiscated, as well as that, while some animals have become more popular, others have lost ground. Some of the increasingly popular illegal wildlife items that smugglers try to import include parts from bears, cetaceans, crocodiles, corals, snails and clams. Fewer elephant, rhino and cat parts are being confiscated.

Lion genitalia and live sea cucumbers

The study reports that US authorities seized just over six million illegal items during the period investigated - some dead, others living - encompassing 3400 different animal species. Of these thousands of species, 581 are endangered.

"Everything from lion and tiger genitalia, to strange little bottles of oil made from different animals, to pangolin scales, live leeches, sea cucumbers, and even seahorses to be sold as pets, have been confiscated,” according to biologist and head researcher Maria Therese Bager Olsen of the University of Copenhagen. Olsen continues:

"Even though the volume of trade in illegal wildlife is far less than what is traded in the legal market, the scale is so large that it threatens biodiversity. The six million items only represent what customs officials intercepted. The real number is bound to be considerably higher."

On average, nearly 2700 kilos of illegal items were confiscated annually during the 1980’s. During the period from 2000-2013, the average was 534,000 kilos per year.

As legal trade grows, illegal trafficking follows suit

According to the researchers, the overall increase in confiscated wildlife products is attributable to tighter border controls, as well as increased globalisation, which has eased the travel and transportation of goods. Furthermore, dark web markets for exotic pets have emerged in recent years.

"When certain types of animals trend, the likely explanation is to be found in fashion and food trends, greater demand for exotic pets and an increased interest in hunting, and thereby hunting trophies. The diminished trade in elephant, rhino and large cat parts in the United States may be related to the shrinking populations of these species, making them more difficult to obtain, as they often end up in Asian countries, where demand for them has increased. Or, the trade may have simply become so sophisticated that it has yet to be revealed," says Maria Therese Bager Olsen.

At the same time, the study presents a pattern that can be useful in the global battle against future wildlife crime:

"We can see that the product groups experiencing increased sales in legal trade are also being sold more through illegal avenues. This includes bear trophies, clams and snails. This information can be used to predict the types of products that authorities should keep an eye out for," says Maria Therese Bager Olsen.