What is wildlife trafficking?
Wildlife trafficking is the trade (both legal and illegal) of wild animals, living or dead, or their tissues. Ivory, furs, feathers, leather, bones, eggs, shells - many items used in household decor and fashion are familiar products of the wildlife trade. Other ways wildlife are being trafficked include the collection of live specimens from the wild for the exotic pet trade, the consumption of bushmeat and other delicacies like sharkfin soup, and the harvesting of animal body parts for use in folk remedies and traditional "medicines."
Why is wildlife trafficking a problem?
A multi-billion dollar industry, overcollection and illegal poaching has reached a crisis-level for many threatened and endangered species. Wildlife trafficking is second only to habitat destruction as a cause of species endangerment. Millions of animals are killed or harvested each year - and for each animal that makes it to the pet trade alive, hundreds of others have suffered and died in transit.
The United States is one of the world's largest consumers of wildlife. Although we tend to think of practices in far-off countries as the source of this problem, this is a global issue with local roots. Because the trade is driven by the demand, purchasing these items, even when legally sourced, fuels a dangerous and destructive black market as well. Here are some things you can do to stop wildlife trafficking:
Wildlife trafficking is organized crime. High level kingpins exploit disadvantaged and vulnerable local people around the world to collect specimens and transport them. The money from illegal sales supports drug- and human-trafficking rings as well, and has even been linked to global terrorism. Supporting the wildlife trade with your purchases also supports these other illegal activities. Because the wildlife trade exploits vulnerable people at the local level, cracking down on poachers and shippers doesn't successfully disrupt the network. Only by eliminating demand for these items at the consumer level can we hope to save species on the brink of extinction.
In addition to the harm the wildlife trade does to wild animals and local communities, it can put YOU at risk as a consumer. Just because something is for sale doesn't mean its legal for you to possess it. Uninformed purchases can put you in legal jeopardy. Contact with wild sourced items could also carry the risk of disease exposure, and common tourist traps involving photos or handling of wildlife can result in serious injury.
What is the Zoo doing to help?
The wildlife trafficking issue is relatively new to most people. Columbian Park Zoo seeks to be a leader in raising awareness in the local community through public engagement and educational messaging. One of the areas we feel we can have the biggest impact is through guiding the public in responsible pet choices. As local experts in exotic animal care, we frequently field questions from the public regarding exotic pet ownership. Columbian Park Zoo is home to several Animal Ambassadors who were surrendered exotic pets and now serve to help "put a face" on the importance of responsible pet choices.
The Columbian Park Zoo also utilizes a number of wildlife artifacts for educational purposes. These items, such as python pelts, crocodile hat bands, mounted caiman, and others, were confiscated by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service as illegal imports. Rather than destroy the items, the USFWS loans some artifacts out to educational institutions for the purpose of public engagement. The Columbian Park Zoo is proud to participate in this endeavor.
In August 2017, the Columbian Park Zoo hosts its first "Lizard Appreciation Day," a free special event to help raise awareness about the wildlife trade, particularly as it relates to lizards. As one of the most heavily trafficked groups of animals, lizards are the perfect animals to help engage the community and teach about this important conservation issue.
What can I do to help stop wildlife trafficking?
1. Be informed, buy informed.
Always ask if a wildlife product is real, or replica (faux). Don’t assume! Ask for source documentation. If the seller can’t provide it, don’t buy it. Be wary of online purchases, auctions, and roadside vendors. Just because something is available to buy, doesn't mean its legal.
2. Know your local wildlife laws.
Or at least be aware that if wildlife is involved, there may be a law you need to know about! Laws vary from state to state, and with local ordinances or private property restrictions. Do your research before taking possession of anything sourced from wildlife - fur, feathers, leather, eggs, live animals, etc. Visit CITES, IUCN, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or World Wildlife Foundation websites for more information. Remember, even if it’s not illegal, it may still be harmful to the ecosystem or to you!
3. Avoid tourist traps.
Do not buy tourist photo ops that involve holding or posing with wildlife while on vacation. Avoid wildlife souvenirs.
Be wary of too-good-to-be-true animal opportunities at home, too. Check for credentials such as AZA accreditation and/or USDA licensure before supporting organizations that offer these “local tourist” activities for money. Will your money go towards conservation and education, or are they exploiting animals for profit? Support AZA-accredited or conservation-focused zoos and aquariums with your tourist dollars.
4. Think twice before getting an exotic animal as a pet.
Always ask the seller to provide documentation for an exotic animal’s source. Buy captive-bred only, or better yet choose domesticated animals - they make far better pets for most people. Consider adopting from a rescue rather than supporting the sales market for exotic animals. Always do your homework first - how will you care for the animal, get vet care, and what are your options if you can’t keep it any longer? Have a plan for its whole life before bringing it into yours.
5. Speak up, speak out.
Share what you know with your friends and loved ones. Encourage others to be informed, buy informed. Voice your concerns to your local/state representatives regarding wildlife laws and regulations. Report suspected illegal wildlife sales to the proper authorities.