The US struggles to tackle wildlife trafficking

Wildlife trafficking is the fourth most lucrative crime in the world, and the US alone has held the distinction of being second only to China in perpetuating the market for ivory.

In February of this year President Obama banned the commercial use of ivory. He set forth a national strategy of increasing cooperation among a half-dozen federal agencies, toughening laws and enhancing enforcement.

US detector dog

Trained detector dogs are used in many ports like this one in Miami to search out wildlife products. by: Tom MacKenzie/USFWS

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has been charged with cracking down on the trade, responding through undercover efforts like Operation Crash, in which officers tackle all aspects of U.S. involvement in the black market rhino horn trade.


But the largest issue is in the ports. Fewer than 330 Fish and Wildlife inspectors patrol the largest U.S. ports, about the same number as 30 years ago, when the agency’s law enforcement branch was formed, before wildlife trafficking was as problematic.

In fact only 6 USFWS inspectors and 4 police agents are employed to search millions of shipments that arrive at JFK airport, one of the most massive cargo facilities in the country. For every crate discovered with illegal ivory, horn or other banned wildlife products, it is estimated that about 10 others make it through.

“We don’t have enough people to do what we have to do,” said Paul Chapelle, the special agent in charge of the USFWS  law enforcement office near JFK Airport. And when they do arrest someone, he said, “you go back and look at the [shipping] manifests, and you see the same people had been doing the same thing for five or 10 years. . . . It happens all the time.”

USFW again

USFWS officer in a room of confiscated illegal wildlife in New York. by: Yana Paskova

Checking every shipment isn’t feasible but obviously spot checking isn’t enough. Intentions and enacting of laws is only the beginning. To say more manpower is severely needed to back up these laws is an understatement.


Yet ironically with a severely flawed and ineffective system, the  Fish and Wildlife agents are considered by many as the world’s most effective illegal wildlife trade enforcement team.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement continues to be the premier law enforcement agency in the world when it comes to combating wildlife trafficking,” said Deputy Chief Ed Grace.

*Source: Darryl Fears of the Washington Post



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