The covert horrors of the animal trade

Ben Anketell unveils the dirty secrets of the third largest trafficking business in the world, where parrots are trapped in water bottles and smuggled across borders for a quick buck

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A poacher stalks, hunched, through the South American rainforest, searching for his prey. This time, he’s looking for the threatened spider monkey, but upon finding it he has no way of reaching the graceful primate all the way up in the treetops. Despite this, he is not fazed: there is one way to get a live monkey down from the canopy. The poacher will find a mother, with a small baby monkey clinging tightly to her chest, and shoot her down, sending both her and her small child — clinging to her chest — plummeting to the forest floor. The baby, if it survived the fall, is then taken, smuggled the hundreds of miles to the USA to be stuffed in the boot of a car, to be eventually sold as a designer pet to ignorant collectors. This is the story of one illegally trafficked animal. This monkey and millions of other illegally traded animals are the bread and butter of the third biggest illegal trafficking business in the world, after drugs and weapons. It funds crime syndicates, destroys ecosystems and spreads fatal diseases across the globe, yet the international response seems relatively negligible.

The illegal trade of animals has become a worldwide network, spanning nearly every ecosystem on the planet. The corrupt governments and lack of resources for law enforcement in the most popular regions allow this practice to thrive, while porous borders allow easy movement of these illicit goods. African and Asian goods filter through to the expansive markets of China and Japan where they are sold as pets, gourmet foods and as ingredients for traditional medicines. Pangolins are boiled to remove scales which are (unscientifically) thought to treat a variety of ailments ranging from skin disorders to breast-feeding deficiencies.

In addition to its use in medicine, pangolin meat is one of the most prized delicacies in China and Vietnam. A restaurant in the Vietnamese Capital charges $150 per pound of meat, a price which includes a show — the helpless animal is butchered at the table as a guarantee of its authenticity and freshness.

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These depravities are not limited to Asian countries, not by any means. The USA is one of the largest recipients of illegal exotic animals as pets. A raid on a warehouse in Arlington, Texas revealed the true scale, with over 20,000 animals were found in varying states of ill health and many close to death. This highlights the massive animal welfare problem involved with the trafficking of live animals — with little care for the animals’ wellbeing past the ability of at least some to stay alive, they are kept in truly nightmarish conditions. Parrots are tied up and stuffed into water bottles, baby turtles are sealed in their shells and stuffed by the dozen into tube socks and monkeys have been found in people’s underwear, all to simply bypass customs checks. The estimated mortality in trafficked animals can be as high as 99%.

The incredible prices that people will pay for trafficked animal goods is what allows such an appalling practice to thrive: tens of thousands of pounds can be demanded for rare Macaws, while a pair of rhino horns will sell for nearly $400,000. This money goes directly to funding organised crime and militias, or even funding terror groups such as the Al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab.

The lack of international response is astounding. Once again the same problems of intergovernmental cooperation with this worldwide issue results in a lack of organised global governmental response. The trades ability to stay well-hidden and the targeting of animals, rather than humans, allow it to operate under the radar when compared to organised drugs or terror.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to this issue as it is such a secretive and global trade. Legalisation of the trade has been suggested to allow it to be controlled and monitored, however the legalisation just gives the related illegal activities, of fishing over quotas and not using the whole shark, a legal face. Desperation has led to controversy.

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In west India’s Kaziranga National Park, guards have been told by their director to ‘kill the unwanted’. As of February, over 50 suspected poachers had been killed. However, this includes a number of tragedies, as even children unwittingly trespassing in the park have been shot, and killed. It will require the cooperation of multiple governments, rather than the collective turning of a blind eye, to solve this issue which is effecting ecosystems across the world.