Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Ball 11. How Large is the trade in illegal wildlife?
One smuggler was caught with a single, scaly clam, another with three live iguanas in his artificial leg. Some thieves had larger ambitions—1.05 million queen conch, fat from 100,000 frogs, 68,000 kilograms of pangolin meat.
These grim statistics come from a new, comprehensive look at the illicit global trade in wildlife—a sub rosa industry estimated to be worth as much as $20 billion each year, second only the market for illegal drugs. Beyond the economic cost, researchers said, the stream of trafficked animals, from Southeast Asia in particular, poses a potential source of emerging or yet-unseen viruses that could make the jump to people with lethal consequences.
“From 1996 to 2008, more than 191,934 live animals were traded illegally from ‘disease hotspots’ in Southeast Asia,” said Gail Rosen, a Brown University graduate student and co-author of the study. “With no quarantines or certification systems, there is no way to know what diseases these animals may carry.
The study, reported in the journal EcoHealth, reviewed 12 years of seizure records, spanning the period 1996 to 2008, compiled by Traffic, an international wildlife monitoring program. In all, researchers identified 967 seizures involving everything from tiger pelts to live birds.
Mammals and products from these animals were the targets of choice for wildlife smugglers, accounting for 51% of all seizures. The bulk of those involved skins from big cats and elephant ivory. Among live animals, however, reptiles made up nearly 70% of seizures. Customs officials seized more than 72,000 live turtles and tortoises—more than enough to fill every seat in the Louisiana Superdome, Rosen noted.
“If we can understand the dynamics and scale of the trade, then we can improve legal enforcement,” Rosen says. “This knowledge can also help us anticipate problems like species invasions before they happen, so that we can work to prevent them.”