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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.

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