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Trail of skins and bones leads to underworld

  • Article by: BOB DART
  • Cox News Service
  • March 8, 2008 - 4:32 PM

WASHINGTON

A bottle of "wine" made from tiger bones sells for $100. Boots made from sea turtle skin go for $480. A shawl woven from the wool of Tibetan antelopes retails for $30,000. A tiger skin fetches $50,000.

The $10 billion to $20 billion generated each year in illegal international wildlife trade trails only drug and arms smuggling as a global criminal activity, and the profits are increasingly going to organized crime and even terrorist groups, witnesses told the House Natural Resources Committee last week.

And the crimes are not just in far-off African and Asian countries.

"Unfortunately, we have a problem here in America," testified Claudia McMurray, assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science. "As we are among the world's most significant consumers of legally traded wildlife products, along with China, it stands to reason that we are a large market for these illegal products."

"Tourists and Internet consumers are buying huge numbers of products without knowing that what they are doing is illegal," she said.

While illicit trafficking in drugs and weapons has raised alarms and even spawned the term "narco-terrorism," the illegal wildlife trade has not received such attention, said Rep. Nick Rahall, chairman of the panel. The global connections to the underworlds of several countries and to terrorist groups are just being uncovered, he said.

"As a result, illegal wildlife trafficking poses a risk not only to the survival of God's creatures but also to the safety and stability of our world and the American people," Rahall said at the hearing. "This is the wildlife version of blood diamonds."

"Blood diamond" describes a gem mined and sold, usually in Africa, to finance a rebel army or warlord or some criminal or terrorist activity.

Rahall said he had directed the Congressional Research Service to examine the threats posed by the international illegal trade in wildlife.

The investigation "found that many of the same criminal entities that deal in arms and drugs -- including organized criminals -- are hawking wildlife as well," Rahall said. "Particularly disconcerting is the anecdotal evidence linking terrorist activity to illegal wildlife trade."

The report said the United Nations and Interpol had found that "some insurgent groups and possibly terrorist groups" are involved in illegal poaching for profit in several areas of Asia and Africa.

There is evidence that a Somali warlord tied to elephant and rhinoceros poachers has provided safe haven to Al-Qaida operatives involved in bombing U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the report said. Two Islamic extremist groups in India with ties to Al-Qaida also poach elephants and rhinos, it said.

Poaching is pushing some species to the brink of extinction, McMurray warned. For instance, at the turn of the 20th century, the wild tiger population was about 100,000. Now it's around 5,000. India had 3,508 tigers in 1997, but has only 1,411 now.

About $10 million worth of illegal wildlife is seized at U.S. borders each year, but that "only scratches the surface of the wildlife contraband coming into this country," said Benito Perez, the chief of law enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He said the United States is a major market for rare reptiles, birds, corals, orchids and other species -- "everything from parrots in Mexico to Komodo dragons from Indonesia." In addition to live animals and plants, ivory carvings and art made from feathers, fur and other parts of protected species of animals are in great demand.

The United States is a supplier as well as consumer of illegal wildlife, Perez said. Illicit exports include juvenile leopard sharks harvested from California waters, live eels from the Eastern seaboard, and coral reef organisms from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Falsely sold as Russian caviar, domestic sturgeon caviar is fetching $880 a pound and paddlefish caviar $373 a pound, he testified.

Perez said his agency has 114 uniformed wildlife inspectors at 38 points of entry, and 191 special agents investigating trafficking both here and abroad. He admitted that more are needed.

A major problem in combatting the illegal wildlife trade is that it is often not regarded as a serious, mainstream crime, said John Sellar, a senior officer in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. And in many countries, he said, "local officials are making so much money in this illicit business that there is no motivation to do anything about it."

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