The bounty includes shoes fashioned from caimans and pythons, coral cut from reefs for aquariums and jewelry, turtle cartilage for soup, iguanas for pets, elephant ivory piano keys, teeth from hippos, sperm whales and grizzlies.

Millions of specimens of vulnerable wildlife — whole plants and animals and their parts — enter the United States each year under the watchful eyes of federal inspectors.

It’s all perfectly legal. Even though Walter Palmer’s trophy of Cecil the lion reportedly stayed in Zimbabwe, the Minnesota dentist’s hunting saga is focusing the world’s attention on the global flow of wildlife.

The more than 700 African lions killed for sport and shipped as hunting trophies to the United States last year are a drop in a vast pipeline of imperiled wildlife stamped and cleared for import every year, according to a Star Tribune analysis of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data.

This is not the highly publicized, illicit trafficking in such goods as ivory and rhino horns. It’s part of the internationally sanctioned trade in threatened or potentially threatened wildlife that operates largely out of the public’s view, though it’s fueled by marketplace demands.

In the last five years, 21 million individually counted at-risk wildlife specimens legally entered the United States, along with an additional 13 million kilograms of specimens such as caviar. Although the annual number of individual specimens dropped by about one-fourth during that time, African lion trophies surged.

Where do they go?

A small fraction of the goods are bound for scientific research, museums and zoos. Some are tourist trinkets or other items for personal use such as jewelry.

The vast majority is for commercial trade. While some specimens are from plants and animals that were cultivated or farmed, about half the traded specimens are taken from the wild, the data show. Zebra hides, sea horses and coral for sale are a click away on the Internet. Western wear shops stock exotic leather cowboy boots.

The Star Tribune obtained data of imported wildlife deemed to be at risk of extinction now, or that may risk extinction if trade isn’t controlled, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, called CITES (SIGH-teez), a centerpiece conservation treaty the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforces.

Citing privacy concerns, Fish and Wildlife would not immediately release the names and location of the people and companies importing the items.

The agency tracks imports of CITES Appendix I species (at risk of extinction now, such as giant pandas or snow leopards) and CITES Appendix II species (threatened, such as African lions, African elephants from certain countries and the American black bear). Commercial trade in Appendix I species is generally prohibited, according to Fish and Wildlife. The one giant panda brought into the country, for instance, was for scientific purposes.

But trade in the huge Appendix II category abounds.

Threatened

The CITES lists are about species’ vulnerability to exploitation with international trade. So they include wildlife such as black bears and alligators that probably don’t strike people as threatened. The goal of CITES, which has been around since 1973, is to control wildlife trade so it doesn’t threaten the survival of any species.

CITES’ regulatory body, based in Switzerland, didn’t respond to questions about the trade in vulnerable species. But its website notes that “rural communities depend heavily on wild species for their livelihoods.”

Fish and Wildlife says it’s not trying to promote or stop the trade. Its mandate is to ensure that trade follows the law and does not harm the species, said Craig Hoover, a branch chief in Fish and Wildlife’s international affairs program.

The justifications for allowing the trade vary on who you talk to, he said. It’s obviously an important moneymaker for those in the business, and it creates incentives to preserve the places animals live. “By providing value to that wildlife it ensures that habitat gets protected,” Hoover said.

Yet the legal trade in vulnerable wildlife disturbs conservationists.

“One of the things that’s so shocking to people is that we have any trade in endangered species at all,” said Beth Allgood, U.S. program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Even threatened species or vulnerable species, you have to ask, why are we trading in them? What is more important than their existence?”

D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, said he thinks CITES is failing, particularly for the more than 20,000 species of plants and animals listed in Appendix II. It’s too easy for exporting countries to make the determination that trade won’t have a detrimental impact on the species’ survival, he said, a finding that’s required to legally export the items. There’s simply too little knowledge of how the species are being affected, he said.

Schubert argues that instead of creating lists of threatened species, CITES should toughen its stance by using lists of approved species, requiring countries to prove trade can be done sustainably.

Among the most numerous threatened wildlife items imported into the U.S. are live coral, along with shoes, belts, wristwatch bands, wallets and handbags made from the hides of caimans, alligators, pythons and monitors.

Matt Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, called exotic leather footware a niche product and said his organization doesn’t have a policy on threatened wildlife.

Online retailer CulturedCowboy.com explains that Tony Lama brand elephant skin cowboy boots are “made from hides tanned only from animals that have passed away, or are endangering lives, or for some other humane reason, must be put down.”

Down at Schatzlein Saddle Shop on Lake Street in Minneapolis, cowboy boots made from the skins of ostrich and python line the wall. A pair of Lucchese boots made in Mexico out of two caiman tails costs $584.

“They’re kind of the latest greatest thing next to ostrich,” said co-owner Paul Schatzlein.

Schatzlein said he doesn’t know the origin or precise variety of the caimans, ostriches or pythons, so it’s difficult to know if the hides come from threatened species.

Schatzlein said he supports restricting trade if the animals are imperiled. He leaves that up to the boot-makers and said he thinks they “do a good job” honoring trade rules.

As he talks, a man from Texas visiting family in Minnesota slipped on a pair of $239 black and white python leather boots.

Trophies

It’s the very rarity of big-game animals such as elephants and rhinos that partly makes them so sought-after among an elite crew of big-game hunters.

In the last five years, Fish and Wildlife approved the import of nearly 60,000 trophies of animals that are either at risk of extinction or that could be at risk of extinction if trade isn’t controlled. That doesn’t include the ones taxidermists buy or the other products hunters make from trophy parts. Often the trophy is just the head, but it can be the whole body or a part.

The trophies represent several dozen different species, though half the trophies were black bears, listed on CITES Appendix II, many from Canada. Sandhill cranes and African lions round out the top 3.

Many trophies are imposing creatures such as elephants, leopards, rhinos and baboons.

Some are more modest. In 2013, someone imported a trophy bushbaby hunted and killed in Zimbabwe. It’s a nocturnal primate found in Africa, with saucer eyes and batlike ears; adults weigh about 8 ounces. There’s also one Mexican flame knee tarantula.

Imports of hunting trophies have generally declined in recent years. Nobody knows precisely why. It’s an expensive, old-school sport and the recession and changing demographics could be affecting interest.

Over-harvesting is clearly a factor, said Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota and author of the forthcoming “Lions in the Balance.”

“There’s just less animals out there to shoot,” Packer said.

Packer said that mainly because captive breeding of lions for hunters in South Africa, the number of African lion trophies has grown. The data show imports to the United States rose from 483 in 2010 to 719 last year.

Hunters are also pursuing mutant big-game animals bred for certain traits, such as all-black impalas, African antelopes that normally are golden.

 

Computer-assisted reporting editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.