Menus Subscribe Search
ivory-tusks

A pile of ivory tusks. (PHOTO: SVETLANA FOOTE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Strange Cargo: Is Legalizing the Trade of Exotic Animal Products the Only Way to Slow It?

• November 06, 2013 • 8:00 AM

A pile of ivory tusks. (PHOTO: SVETLANA FOOTE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Gall bladders, Tibetan antelope wool, musk pods, ivory tusks, pounds and pounds of frog fat—these are just some of the items being smuggled into the U.S. that are, among other things, dangerous to our health.

Smugglers of illegal animals and animal products will go to considerable lengths to obscure their booty. Customs officers have found exotic reptiles secreted inside everything from hollowed out books to prosthetic legs to ceramic garden gnomes. Authorities once flushed out 44 birds from a wicker tube strapped to a gentleman’s leg. They’ve discovered dried seahorses floating inside bags of chili peppers. Ivory has been painted to resemble wood or marble. Bird eggs have been found concealed in tiny pockets woven into the crotch of one intrepid smuggler’s underpants.

When you step back and consider the situation, the trade in illegal animal products appears to be a multi-billion dollar game of hide-and-seek. The problem is that few people are yelling, “Ready or not, here I come!” Even for legal wildlife, the federal government employs less than a couple hundred agents to keep track of hundreds of millions of importations.

ALTHOUGH IT’S THE WORLD’S second largest illicit business (behind only narcotics), little is known about the trade in illegal wildlife. Given that these animals predominantly come from ecologically bountiful regions of Southeast Asia, the most common response to the exotic animal trade centers on its widespread impact on global biodiversity.

“Animals may be smuggled specifically because they have been banned from trade as a result of perceived or recognized health threats.”

The World Wildlife Fund warns that the traffic in illegal animal products is “threatening to overturn decades of conservation gains.” FREELAND, an organization dedicated to reducing both human and wildlife trafficking across Asia, notes how “unchecked nature crime not only ravages biodiversity, but the knock-on effects can unravel entire ecosystems.” With the United States alone having imported over 1.5 billion live animals since 2000, in addition to untold amounts of animal extracts, according to a 2010 study in Ecohealth, this focus makes perfect sense.

But what’s easily missed in an exclusive emphasis on biodiversity loss is the illegal animal trade’s potential impact on global “pathogen pollution.” Based on limited evidence from seized product, it appears that the black market in alien animals deals in a seemingly endless catalog of strange cargo—everything from gall bladders to Tibetan antelope wool to musk pods to ivory tusks to pounds and pounds of frog fat. “If you think of it,” one scientist who monitors the trade told the Associated Press, “you can get it.”

These products have the potential to make people very sick. “There are all kinds of exotic species that may be unknown vectors of human disease,” said one official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A 2006 report speculated that a virulent outbreak from an exotic animal “could rival a terrorist act.” Still, little is being done to monitor these hazards. According to the ecologists Gail Rosen and Katherine Smith, there are no international programs exclusively dedicated to regulating this threat.

In the United States, the most common approach to managing the pathogen profile of exotic animal products has been to employ a knee-jerk—and maybe even counterproductive—response. Typically, an exotic animal product is banned after it’s suspected of carrying dangerous pathogens.

When, in 2003, the CDC traced the introduction of the potentially fatal monkeypox to Gambian rats that had been legally introduced as pets, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) swiftly banned their importation. Likewise, federal health officials ended the legal importation of masked palm civets in 2004 when they were suspected of carrying the SARS virus. The same holds true of many birds suspected of having avian influenza.

With public health experts declaring that 75 percent of emerging diseases today derive from zoonotic sources (PDF), and with the United States being the world’s largest wildlife importer (legal and illegal), such a response is entirely inadequate. If the U.S. expects to make a dent in this largely unexplored trade, at least two things need to happen. First, the importation of illegal animal products must be decriminalized, and, second, once above board, consumers of these goods must be stigmatized.

THE FIRST CHANGE IS relatively easy. Deeming certain animal products illegal condemns them to an underworld where they all too easily escape detection. It also lends them a seductive cache. As Boris Pavlin et. al. note in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, “Animals may be smuggled specifically because they have been banned from trade as a result of perceived or recognized health threats.” Counterintuitive as it seems, keeping goods above board and carefully regulated is a critical prerequisite to establishing a meaningful regulatory apparatus.

The second task is a more amorphous sort of cultural endeavor—but it’s likely the more important of the two. Part of living in commercial culture means buying a lot of unnecessary, often totally ridiculous, stuff. But, despite our swooning reverence for the free market, consumers tend to respond quickly to negative social pressure.

One of the first animal rights victories in the United States (in the 1890s) was the mass stigmatization of wearing feathered hats. People wore them, activists highlighted the suffering and exploitation involved, and then people stopped wearing them. Advertisements in airports admonish those who purchase ivory products. And, although fur is making a comeback after being castigated in the 1980s, it still remains kind of taboo to wear it.

It hardly seems beyond the pale to think that animals and animal products that serve no purpose other than to provide cheap thrills—all the while exposing the population at large to risk of grave infection—couldn’t go the way of feather hats and ivory souvenirs.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

More From James McWilliams

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.