The illegal wildlife trade is a rapidly expanding industry that's quietly affecting every country in the world. But why has the market gotten so big? And why are so many criminals getting into the game right now? Mental_floss has the answers.Just how big is the international animal racket?
The black market for wildlife is second only to the illegal drug business in size. It's currently estimated to be worth more than $20 billion. Yes, that's billion with a "b." And it's not just elephant tusks that are changing hands under the table. For every type of endangered species out there, there's an eager collector waiting to shell out a lot of cash. For example, a pair of Queen Alexandra's Birdwings—the world's largest butterflies, with wingspans of up to 14 inches—sells for about $10,000. A baby chimpanzee goes for as much as $50,000. But the black market isn't just for cute critters. In March 2009, New York officials broke up a huge smuggling ring that specialized in snapping turtles, rattlesnakes, and salamanders.
But what's so bad about dealing butterflies?
Many scientists believe that the illegal wildlife trade exacerbates one of the gravest problems facing mankind: the mass extinction of species. Biologists like Harvard's E.O. Wilson predict that half of all plant and animal species will be extinct by 2100, and that could mean dire consequences for humanity. Plants and animals pollinate our crops, filter our water, regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, help decompose waste, and lead scientists to new medical breakthroughs—all free of charge. Each time a species goes extinct, we lose one of these unpaid workers. And because wildlife smugglers tend to target the species that are already the most vulnerable, they're speeding up the rate at which we're losing plants and animals.
Who's buying this stuff?
Part of the answer may lie in the psychology of collectors. Whether they're amassing baseball cards or Beanie Babies, most of them start by gathering the common items and then build to the more unusual ones. Eventually, they start seeking out the things that are truly rare. As author Bryan Christy put it in his book The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World's Greatest Reptile Smugglers, reptile collectors tend to follow a common progression. First, they get bigger species, then meaner ones, then unusual ones, and, finally, illegal species, which are also frequently venomous.
In truth, the animals that wind up living in some collector's menagerie are the lucky ones. Many trafficked animals and insects are sacrificed to dinner plates and medicine cabinets. In China, turtles are often turned into turtle soup or ground into aphrodisiac powder. Other animals are killed so that smugglers can harvest a certain organ or body part. In a number of Asian cultures, bear paws are thought to impart strength and virility, and their gallbladders are used to treat everything from cancer to hemorrhoids. A single bear gallbladder can fetch thousands of dollars. And as we all know from the Indiana Jones movies, the practice of eating monkey brains is still alive and well in many parts of the world; in the United States, though, monkeys are usually smuggled in to be pets.
So how do you smuggle a monkey through an airport?
For some reason, stuffing animals in one's trousers is a favorite tactic among smugglers. In 1995, two men were arrested at the Mexican border after customs officials noticed that the bulges in their pants were moving. It turns out that the slithering bumps were actually pantyhose filled with more than a dozen snakes.
Even when traffickers get caught, the stories rarely end well for the animals. Because they've been pulled from their normal habitats and potentially exposed to all sorts of diseases, stolen animals can't simply go home. Instead, they end up quarantined in zoos or in wildlife refuges. And while that isn't the worst fate that can befall an animal, it does nothing for the survival of the species in the wild. From a conservation standpoint, sneaking an animal out of its habitat really isn't any different from shooting it for its hide.
How Much for that Baby Gorilla in the Window?
Wondering if you got a good price on that creature in your basement? Here's what the world's hottest endangered species are going for these days.
Price: up to $20,000
Why they're so hot right now: This parrot's large size and beautiful blue feathers have made it a favorite among collectors. The poaching of macaws has devastated wild populations and driven up prices, which makes them even more popular.
Chimpanzees and Gorillas
Native to: Central Africa
Price: more than $50,000 for babies
Why they're so hot right now: Because they're cute when they're little.
Price: up to several hundred dollars per pound; one whole whale could cost you a few million. Also, one sperm whale tooth can run you $500.
Why they're so hot right now: If you thought hunting for Moby Dick went out with Herman Melville, think again. Although the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, whale sushi is still a delicacy in Japan, and the teeth continue to be carved and sold as knickknacks.
Native to: Madagascar
Price: upwards of $30,000
Why they're so hot right now: Because they might not be around much longer. With fewer than 1,000 ploughshares left in the wild, they're some of the world's most endangered animals.
Native to: Australia
Why they're so hot right now: This large python can change colors like a chameleon, shifting from dark brown during the day to pale silver at night.
Native to: the lower Yangtze River
Why they're so hot right now: In 1999, commercial developments destroyed the alligators' habitat to such an extent that, today, only about 130 survive in the wild. Rarity like that lures the collectors.