The enormity of the illegal wildlife trade and the damage it has inflicted on endangered species is difficult to describe. But stepping inside a warehouse in Colorado gives you a better idea than words ever could.
The National Wildlife Property Repository, a 22,000-square-foot facility run by the The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is packed with over 1.5 million animals and animal parts taken in the illegal wildlife trade. They include stuffed tiger heads, elephant feet converted into garbage cans and stools, and boots and purses made from crocodiles, cobras and iguanas, among others. Some rare animals are posed into macabre taxidermy novelties, such as a rare turtle posed to clutch a ukelele. Perhaps the most tragic is the tiger fetus, pulled from its mother’s womb and mounted on a wooden board.
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The most prominent parts among the collection are those from elephants, rhinos, and tigers, called “the big three” by conservationists because they’re so highly sought-after by poachers. The ivory from elephants, horns from rhinos, and tiger parts are sold for big bucks to Asian black markets, where buyers believe the animal remains have medicinal properties.
There’s no exact figure on the value of the illegal wildlife trade, but the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield has said it could be as much as $40 billion per year. Officials have enacted steep penalties on illegal wildlife traders under agreements of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but some of the biggest perpetrators of wildlife crime, such as China, are not subject to the penalties.
The situation is becoming increasingly dire as the populations of threatened species plummet, and criminals and terrorists use the proceeds from wildlife trade to fund their illicit activities. It’s considered a relatively low-risk fundraiser, since the penalties for wildlife trade aren’t nearly as high as those for drug or arms trafficking.
But according to Brownfield, the wildlife trade in itself is so abhorrent that the link to terrorism isn’t needed to help stop illegal trafficking. To take a look around the warehouse is to realize that every animal that was taken was one the world couldn’t spare, which represents just a fraction of the problem.
The Property Depository, for its part, is doing its best to turn these relics of crime toward positive means. Many of the items are donated to educational facilities, non-profit organizations, and conservation groups to teach about educational facilities. The hope is they will help others to understand the problem and act so that one day, these stuffed and mounted animals won’t be the only proof that they ever existed.