The animal smugglers

Techknow investigates the shadowy world of animal smugglers and the endangered species they put at risk.

The smuggling of endangered wildlife, both dead and alive, is a billion-dollar global business, second only in size to the illegal arms and drug trades. American border control continues to see an incessant attempt at bringing hundreds of species into the United States every year – each attempt more creative than the next.

Chatuchak Market in Bangkok is one of the largest open-air flea markets in Thailand, attracting locals and tourists alike. It boasts more than 8,000 vendors selling every type of good under the sun: ceramics, antiques, furniture, clothing and endangered animals. Chatachuk has been recognised by the World Wildlife Fund as a hot spot for illegal animal trade.

“It’s really disturbing actually – there’s no telling what you’re going to find,” says Joseph Johns, prosecutor of environmental crimes at the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, of Chatachuk. “You couldn’t do this anywhere in the United States of America.”

People do ask me, 'what's the strangest animal you've ever seen?' and I'll tell them, 'it's man'.

by Mike Osborn, supervisor, US Fish and Wildlife Service

The market is a tragically perfect place to sell and buy illegal wildlife. It is a bustling scene with a lot of people, perfect cover for a potential deal. Vendors can hide their illegal animals behind domestic pet storefronts.

Thailand itself serves as a major funnel for the $10bn illegal wildlife trade. There is a good chance that what is sold in Chatuchak might find its way to the United States.

The black market for the animal trade is unsurprisingly nondiscriminatory – live crocodiles, overharvested Queen conch shells, and even rare orchids and other flora have also made their way across patrolled borders. 

“I’ve had monkeys jump out of suitcases, birds flying out of toothpaste boxes … they get more and more intricate nowadays,” says Mike Osborn, supervisor with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. 

In some cases, the attempts to smuggle have been so desperate, the methods have matched the desire to make business. In Los Angeles, Jereme James was caught smuggling three Fiji island banded iguanas from a nature preserve – while on honeymoon – and attempting to sell them to an undercover US Fish and Wildlife Service agent. James admitted to smuggling the iguanas by creating a special compartment in his prosthetic leg.

As with many other animals seized at the border, the iguanas in question were rescued by a zoo, in this case the San Diego Zoo Reptile House. According to zoo curator Kim Lovich, most seized animals live out their days in captivity; it can be very difficult to return an animal back to its home without full knowledge of its original habitat.  

“If you don’t know exactly where that animal is from, you could be introducing viruses to a native population,” says Lovich.

The species themselves are selected for a range of values. Some for their rare and exotic qualities, like an ivory totem or a python wallet.

Others are captured and sold for pseudo-medicinal purposes, such as the bladder from the Totoaba, a critically endangered sea bass that can be found only in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The demand for this specific organ comes from more than 8,000 miles away in Asia due to the belief that the bladder can improve circulation, skin vitality and boost fertility. One bladder can sell for $15,000 on the black market.

Undercover agents are doing what they can to intercept the sale of trafficked goods, but the major driver of this falls on the public and the escalating demand for exotic animals. An economic boom, superstition, celebrity, and dubious medicinal claims all play a role, encouraging conspicuous consumption in Asia. Education and crackdowns need to continue to help mitigate the global trade.