Here's Why It Is So Darned Hard To Stop The $20 Billion Exotic Animal Trade

Tigers

This week, CNBC’s Brian Schatman reported on the buying and selling of exotic animals.  

Every day, people smuggle live animals or animal products into the United States, propping up an illegal trade worth an estimated $10 billion worldwide, according to the report. 

But with so much cargo coming into the country through various routes — and very few wildlife inspectors — the lucrative criminal enterprise is proving difficult to stop.  

Last October, 56 exotic pets that included lions, tigers and bears were allegedly released by their owner from a private zoo in Zainesville, Ohio. Although no one was hurt, the tragedy put the exotic animal trade in the spotlight.

What's shocking is that the private zoo in Ohio was completely legal. In fact, Ohio is ranked third in the nation in reported pet incidents involving big cats, bears and primates. Ohio and six other states have no exotic pet regulations at all. The threat of people owning exotic pets, however, is just one part of the issue. Exotic animals are also at the centre of a thriving underground black market, worth up to $20 billion worldwide.

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, but you could buy a live tiger for as little as $2,500.

And these two rhino horns are worth more than $200,000. 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? That task belongs to the U.S. 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 per cent of what comes into the country illegally, making its way across U.S. borders by car, plane, boats and mail in extremely crafty ways...

This harmless looking cookie box, for example, was actually harboring rhino pills.

Two pygmy monkeys were discovered in a pouch hidden in a man's pants at the Los Angeles International Airport.

In another case, a man was arrested after authorities noticed 14 songbirds strapped to his legs.

At JFK, officials uncovered African ivory beneath a coating designed to look like wood.

These plastic containers shoved in a box were hiding saltwater crocodiles.

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.

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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