The recent killing of a Zimbabwe lion named Cecil by an American dentist and trophy hunter not only triggered outrage on social media, it has also renewed concerns about the illegal wildlife trade, worth an estimated $US10 billion (£6.4 billion) worldwide.
The buying and selling of exotic animals and animal parts, which may include the poaching of rhinos for their ivory or the hunting of lions and tigers for their skins, is at the center of a thriving underground black market.
In 2012, CNBC’s Brian Schatman reported on the smuggling of live animals and animal products into the United States. With so much cargo coming into the country through various routes and very few wildlife inspectors, the report explained why the criminal enterprise is very difficult to stop.
Last month, a 13-year-old male lion named Cecil was pursued and brutally killed by a dentist from Minnesota along with two Zimbabwean men on a trophy hunt. Here, Walter is pictured on the left with another one of his trophy kills.
Palmer is accused of luring the animal off of a wildlife sanctuary before shooting and wounding him with an arrow. The lion was shot and killed with a rifle almost two days later and then skinned and beheaded.
Cecil's death, which evidence suggests was both illegal and inhumane, brings the issue of wildlife trafficking into the spotlight. Although the US has pushed for tougher laws to prosecute those who violate wildlife protections, the industry, estimated to be worth billions of dollars, has proved difficult to regulate for several reasons.
This is Crawford Allan of the World Wildlife Fund. He says that high profit margins combined with low penalties for criminals makes the illegal wildlife trade more appealing than illegal drugs or weapons.
Tigers, for example, are worth more dead than alive. Allan says that the composite parts of a tiger could fetch up to $100,000 (£64,000), but you could buy a live tiger for as little as $2,500 (£1,601).
These two rhino horns are worth more than $200,000 (£128,155). Rhino horn is one of the most valuable commodities, especially in Asia where people believe it cures cancer.
So who's in charge of policing the wildlife trade? In the U.S., that task belongs to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency's forensic laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, is the only facility in the world dedicated to investigating animal crimes.
Ken Goddard runs the Oregon laboratory, which sees about 1,000 cases and 1,500 items each year. His mission is to identify the species, determine the cause of death, and decide if the investigation should move to the next level.
Before a specimen can be studied, researchers use thousands of beetles to clean the carcass. The process takes about two weeks.
Scientists then fire a potential suspect's weapon into a tank to see if the bullet matches the one taken out of the animal. Shown here is a 7-mm rifle, strong enough to take down an elephant.
The majority of illegal animal products, however, end up at the Fish and Wildlife Repository outside of Denver, Colorado. The warehouse is home to 1.5 million confiscated items, including anything from snake wine to pills made from rhino horn, tiger bone, and bear gallbladder.
Still, the USFWS only seizes about 10% of what comes into the country illegally, making its way across U.S. borders by car, plane, boats and mail in extremely crafty ways.
Two pygmy monkeys were discovered in a pouch hidden in a man's pants at the Los Angeles International Airport.
Not all illegal wildlife products are smuggled through airports. A shipment of parrots hidden in a car seat compartment was seized at the California-Mexico border.
As of 2012, USFWS only had 143 inspectors nationwide, which is hardly enough to monitor the 55 million pounds of wildlife that enters the country each year. This is John Thompson, one of the 15 wildlife inspectors at New York's JFK airport. When asked if he's ever been bribed, he tells Shactman: 'Yes, it was actually just last week. This broker tried to bribe me to come do the inspection of high value ivory pieces. He's like, 'Between you, me and the lamp post, I'll give you some cash if you do the shipment.''
What's worse, experts worry that airports could be a gateway to dangerous diseases carried by animals.
But the sheer volume of cargo coming in from around the world combined with the low risks and high rewards for smugglers, makes regulating the illegal wildlife trade a continuous challenge for law enforcement.
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