The legal wildlife trade in the United States is estimated at $6 billion annually. The illegal wildlife trade is one-third of that amount, directly undercutting a licit economy. Law enforcement and other authorities charged with assessing trade-based threats from wildlife trafficking face a crippling lack of accessible evidence, hampering the ability of practitioners to understand and enumerate threats from wildlife trafficking, particularly those that are financial. Some sectors, such as shipping companies, may be unknowingly exploited by wildlife traffickers. Tools are needed that enhance systems of communication among and between sectors impacted by wildlife trafficking (e.g., United States Postal Service, harbor/port officials) so that law enforcement efforts can be as efficient and effective as possible.
Wildlife trade has existed for millennia, but the illegal market has grown dramatically in recent years. No species or country is immune to the problem. Wildlife poaching and trafficking pose multiple risks, harms, and threats, including: violence threatening animals and humans; undermining the rule of law and conservation investments; removing taxable revenue from legal supply chains; degrading cultural resources; contributing to zoonotic disease transmission and biological invasions; fueling corruption and other forms of criminality; and, converging with other serious crimes such as drug trafficking. Wildlife trafficking supply chains are often understood as having source, transit, and destination geographies over which different authorities hold differing jurisdictions.
Much of the world’s illegal wildlife trade is driven by consumers in the United States, or passes through the ports of the United States on its way to other destinations. The main entry points for smuggled wildlife are border and port cities such as El Paso, Miami, New York, and San Diego. A significant portion of the illegal wildlife trafficking market is effectively hidden through use of legal supply chains and delivery processes. Media and conservationists widely report that wildlife traffickers are shifting their modus operandi from physical to virtual networks to conduct illicit trade and subvert law enforcement efforts. For example, The Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which as of March 2020 was made up of 34 private companies including Alibaba, Google, and Facebook, identified 1,170 suspicious code words collected for detection and removed or blocked 3 million prohibited species listings.
Many species that are trafficked have not been named, much less studied, and their conservation status can only be assumed. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, responsible for assessing species conservation status, has only published studies on a small number of the total species known to science, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) provides protection for a similarly small fraction.
The volume of trade provides another barrier to data assessment and analysis. More than 100,000,000 individual animals are traded annually. Import and export data is deficient in multiple ways, with information rarely aligning, resulting in a lack of understanding at the national level exactly how many animals are leaving or entering a country, enabling questionable and often illegal trades. Customs officials at border points often lack required knowledge to identify species, much less detect fraudulent documents and money laundering and interdict illegal shipments.
Lacking easily available, credible, and data-supported information, policy makers, consumers, and law enforcement face a massive informational burden to understand the scope and scale of threats to wildlife or how their actions impact threats. Traffickers are typically many steps ahead of enforcement and conservation officials, often already moving on to new species and locations before those tasked with protecting wildlife have any idea of the extent or nature of the illegal trade. Communication and investigative channels among and between authorities are often fragmented and information and evidence too often is not stored or shared over the long term, with the end result that authorities are stymied in combating or prosecuting this ever-increasing challenge.
Experts are well aware that wildlife trafficking is a problem in the United States. Diverse authorities struggle to efficiently detect wildlife being trafficked into, out of, and through United States borders. When live animals are seized, authorities often lack safe and legal options for releasing into the wild and/or rehabilitating them. In some instances, trafficked wildlife is not confiscated because authorities have no suitable location for holding them while following appropriate disease management and investigation-related evidence protection protocols. Some animals cannot be released into the wild because of uncertainty of geographic provenance, compromised health, invasive species concerns, and biological challenges related to successful reintroductions. Many taxa are trafficked alive, including birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Wildlife trafficking undermines effective conservation efforts; the crime is a major driver of species declines and there is no ecosystem in the world that has avoided negative impacts. Wild flora and fauna are illegally traded for a range of purposes, for example food, income, medicine, companionship, novelty, and research. Wildlife trafficking can be associated with violence against animals and people, destabilization of communities and undermining of local governance, inhumane transshipment methods, high mortality rates, substandard care, and increased susceptibility to disease. When ecosystems lose fauna and flora to the illegal wildlife trade, the ecosystem suffers from degraded integrity and function and individual populations can be extinguished. When illegally traded wildlife enter new ecosystems they can spread disease and establish themselves as invasive. Wildlife trafficking is a large and widespread conservation problem.
To win Theodore Roosevelt Genius Prize Competition for Prevention of Wildlife Poaching and Trafficking participants must submit their solution that address the issue of wildlife trafficking in the United States and its Territories (as a source, transit, or destination geography) through one or both of these high-priority focal areas:
a) The lack of effective and efficient methods for detection, rehabilitation, and/or release of live animals in the illegal trade significantly limits potential interventions to mitigate and/or eliminate the conservation threat.
b) A lack of a centralized reporting and data aggregation system precludes downstream communication, data integration, and knowledge sharing for appropriate law enforcement authorities.