The United States—A Consuming Giant
In 1994 the Fish and Wildlife Service reported that U.S. wildlife trade represented a $20 billion market, including an estimated $5 billion in illegal trade—this is despite U.S. claims to leadership in the protection of threatened plant and animal species. Although the U.S. undeniably has some of the most promising legislation in the world regarding wildlife trade, the insatiable demand of American consumers, plus inadequate resources for law enforcement, has created a booming trade. The most alarming aspect of this trade is Americans' desire for exotic birds—particularly Amazonian parrots, African gray parrots, and Indonesian cockatoos—precisely those bird species most endangered by trade.
Bird smuggling is a particular problem along the Texas-Mexico border. In 1994 federal officials uncovered what they believed to be one of the nation's largest parrot-smuggling operations and seized $70,000 worth of smuggled birds from a Mexican gang. However, this represented only a tiny part of a huge smuggling market responsible for the illegal importation of between 25,000 and 150,000 birds each year. In 1996 a parrot expert named Tony Silva was convicted of smuggling $1.4 million worth of endangered parrots. This included the highly endangered hyacinth macaw, of which only 2,000–5,000 individuals remain in the wild. Because of their rarity, hyacinth macaws are valued at $12,000 each by unscrupulous collectors. In 1997 Adolph Pare of Miami, Florida was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $300,000 for attempting to smuggle 4,000 African gray parrots illegally collected in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) into the United States. He had obtained fake CITES permits for the parrots.
In 1996 the Fish and Wildlife Service also uncovered an illegal trade operation involving bald eagles. The investigation culminated in the arrest of eight men. Citations were also issued against eight tourist shops in the
Four Corners region of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, where bald eagle carcasses were being sold for $1,000 apiece. FWS also reported that more than 60 bald and golden eagles were shot or trapped that winter to feed the demand for feathers, wings, tails, and talons. Numerous tourist centers were fined for selling eagle feathers, prohibited under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. This law, originally passed in 1940, prohibits all trade in bald and golden eagle parts without a permit. A 1972 amendment to the act raised the maximum fine for some crimes to half a million dollars.
Asia and the Pacific Rim—A Black Hole for Endangered Species
The failure of some Asian countries—particularly China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—to curtail illegal trade has combined with economic growth in the Far East to produce a huge demand for numerous endangered species and their products. Although some effort has recently been made to enforce CITES regulations within Asia, officials have had difficulty combating entrenched organized crime networks. Nor are cultural habits, such as the use of endangered species products in many traditional Chinese medicines, easily changed.
With a population in excess of 1.29 billion in 2004, China has become one of the world's largest consumers of wildlife and endangered species. The massive growth in wildlife consumption in China is matched by growth in the export and import of endangered species, their parts, and medicines derived from them. Despite the threat of sanctions by CITES and the United States, the Chinese government has largely turned its back on the growing illegal trade. Furthermore, corruption is widespread. A number of investigations have revealed the involvement of government stores and officials in the sale of restricted products.
Indonesia legally exports between 58,000 and 91,000 birds each year, primarily cockatoos, lories, and other psittacines (birds belonging to the parrot family). Countless others are exported illegally. Approximately 126 avian species native to Indonesia are threatened because of trade or habitat destruction. In July 2003, the World Parrot Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting threatened birds worldwide, reported that the Indonesian government had pledged to ban the export of parrots illegally captured in the wild.
With a population in excess of 127 million in 2004, Japan has one of the highest per capita levels of wildlife consumption in the world. Japan also persists in aggressively campaigning for increased consumption of some types of endangered wildlife. At the 2000 meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), for example, it joined forces with Norway in an effort to eliminate bans against commercial whaling. Moreover, Japan has lobbied CITES for increased wildlife trade. Japan's population of black bears is listed on CITES Appendix I, and its brown bear on Appendix II. Domestic trade in bears (not regulated by CITES, which only deals with international trade) is nonetheless both legal and completely unregulated. Up to one-fifth of Japan's black bear population is killed each year.
In the late 1990s Vietnam was one of the worst offenders in the trade of rare and endangered species. Although the country joined CITES in 1994, little change resulted in the absence of rigid enforcement policies. As other countries in Southeast Asia tightened controls on wildlife smuggling, Vietnam welcomed trade and turned itself into the largest endangered species market in the world. In market stalls in Ho Chi Minh City, a wide variety of wildlife, both dead and alive, fills the streets.
Argentina is one of the world's largest suppliers of wild psittacines (birds related to parrots), shipping between 63,000 and 183,000 individuals each year and threatening the continued survival of numerous species. The extent of illegal traffic is difficult to determine. In addition, tree-felling, a method for collecting young birds from nests, is causing extensive habitat destruction. The blue-fronted Amazon parrot accounts for 27 percent of the country's bird trade.
Guyana officially exports between 15,000 and 19,000 birds each year, including some valuable macaws. The country ranks, along with Senegal, Tanzania, Argentina, and Indonesia, among the top five exporters of wild birds for the international market. National legislation in Guyana allows for the capture of any species, regardless of its conservation status, and inspectors have documented the trade of dozens of rare scarlet macaws.
Poachers trap or shoot gorillas for their heads, which are sold as trophies to tourists, and their hands, which are sold as ashtrays. In Nigeria, more lowland gorillas are being killed each year than are being born, creating an imminent threat of extinction for this species.
Despite protests from animal rights groups, commercial sealing endures as a flagship industry in Namibia, where the penises of baby seal pups are sold as aphrodisiacs to markets in the Far East. Sealskin is also used for shoes, wallets, and accessories. Large-scale sealing, a successful industry in the job-starved Namibian economy, brings approximately $500,000 into that country each year.
Senegal exports between 1 and 10 million birds each year and derives approximately 65 percent of
the value of its bird exports from a single species, the African gray parrot. This species does not occur naturally in Senegal but is imported from other African countries for trading with third parties.
Tanzania supplies the international market with a variety of songbirds, including the popular Fischer's lovebird, a native species whose numbers have declined drastically. Tanzania exports somewhere between 200,000 and 3 million birds per year. Despite government attempts to control trade, protected species are routinely exported.