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April 20, 2009 / jeni

Do Your Creepy Pets Fund Terrorism?

turtleThe underworld makes for strange bedfellows. How else to describe the sea turtle-marijuana nexus? In the 20 April New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger explores the swampy depths of Florida’s exotic wildlife problem and touches upon the rather serious challenge of international wildlife smuggling (pithy abstract here). He notes the Department of Justice estimate that the profits from this trade ‘are second only to those from drug smuggling’.

A few years ago, inspectors caught a smuggler with a suitcase full of giant bird-eating tarantulas and other exotics from Venezuela. The man had bought the lot for three hundred and fifty dollars, but he could have sold them in the United States for forty-five thousand.

Even that kind of obscene profit margin would not get me near a suitcase full of giant tarantulas, but that’s just me.

In a sort of car wreck of illegality, these animal smugglers link up with drug smugglers and organised crime. From Reuters:

From the live snakes that smugglers stuff with packets of cocaine to the white tigers drug lords keep as exotic pets, rare animals are being increasingly sucked into Mexico’s deadly narcotics trade. Drug gang leaders like to show off rarities like sea turtle skin boots and build ostentatious private zoos at their mansions.

They also reap additional profits by sharing routes with animal traffickers who cram humming birds into cigarette packs and baby monkeys into car air conditioning ducts to be sold to underground pet traders in the United States. Mexico’s raging drug war killed some 5,700 people last year and some cartel leaders have even been rumored to throw rivals to their big cats as food.

The global illegal trade in live species and animal parts — used for luxury accessories, Asian medicine or folk remedies like aphrodisiacs — is estimated to be worth up to $20 billion a year, Interpol has said. The big profits available from selling wildlife on the black market — where a certain type of endangered South American macaw can fetch $90,000 and a predatory python around $30,000 — are added incentive to Mexican gangs moving other contraband.

“You can sometimes make as much profit, if not more, than drug smuggling with less consequences, because law enforcement is not paying attention and if you are caught the penalty is just a slap on the wrist,” said Crawford Allan, the North American head of wildlife trade watchdog group Traffic.

An overriding theme in these accounts is the lack of serious penalties and enforcement — a problem not only for law enforcement and security reasons but also because, for example, seven-foot-long lizards are taking over small towns in Florida. There seems to be little to no political will, however, to tighten things up.

The links between animal and drug smuggling can be opportunistic.

In a major 2007 sting operation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the largest of its kind, undercover agents spent three years infiltrating a ring smuggling endangered sea turtle skins from the shores of southern Mexico to as far north as Chicago. Illegal drugs turned up on both sides of the border over the course of the investigation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Nicholas Chavez said.

In the United States, marijuana was seized at one of the raided warehouses filled with animal skin boots. On the Mexican side, smugglers offered to ship cocaine along with the hides of turtles whose numbers are rapidly dwindling in the wild. “It was just thrown out there like ‘Hey, we can also move this stuff if you want.’… They are pretty much moving anything that they can,” Chavez said.

This would support the idea that to a certain extent, it is immaterial what these illicit networks move; a crackdown on one illegal commodity and these people will traffick something else.

A Congressional Research Service report from August 2008 examines the security implications of the international wildlife trade. It backs up the claims regarding cooperation with drug traffickers and adds another interesting detail:

Wildlife products are reportedly also used as a currency in exchange for drugs. According to FWS officials, smugglers often trade illegal drugs for endangered animals in cashless transfers that serve as a special form of money laundering. In South Africa, street gangs reportedly provide highly prized, but illegal, catches of abalone to Asian crime syndicates for methamphetamine.

That last sentence comes from the Wall Street Journal, by the way. I know it sounds more like The Onion, but it’s not.

There’s also strong evidence for links to organised crime.

According to a series of U.N. studies on the illicit traffic of wildlife, wildlife experts claim that Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Russian organized crime syndicates are “heavily involved in illegal wildlife trade.” While such claims do not suggest that organized crime syndicates are involved in all forms of wildlife trafficking, the United Nations reports that syndicates are “strongly present” in some sectors. Further, even when criminal syndicates are not controlling the trade, much of the trafficking is commonly described as “highly organized…” Anecdotal accounts also indicate that some organized groups are involved in both illegal wildlife and human trafficking.

Then, of course, comes the million-dollar question: is it possible to link wildlife smuggling with the terrorists? CRS plays it coy.

There is limited publicly available evidence of terrorist groups involved in wildlife trafficking. According to U.N. reports and Interpol officials, some insurgent groups and possibly terrorist groups are reportedly engaged in illegal poaching for profit in several areas of Asia and Africa. The limited anecdotal evidence indicates that terrorist groups may be engaged in illegal wildlife smuggling for monetary gain, if sources of rich biodiversity are near their operating arenas. Figure 1 shows noted regions of high biodiversity and their proximity to selected zones of possible terrorist safe havens. Although not necessarily indicative of an existing relationship between terrorists and wildlife trafficking, the map highlights the possibility of terrorist groups or other criminal entities in regions of high biodiversity taking advantage of porous borders, weak states, and criminal sympathizers.

In other words: not really, no.  But let’s not all be shocked if someday AQ starts to dabble in the falcon trade.

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