Following the Paper Trail: Exposing the Trade of Exotic Animals
- The Satya Interview with Alan Green
- July 2000
Alan Green is a professional
journalist who spent four years researching and writing the extraordinary book
Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species
published last year by Public Affairs. Green recently spoke with Catherine
Clyne explaining the intricacies of the animal trade—where they come from
and where they end up.
How would you describe Animal Underworld to people who are not familiar with
Animal Underworld is about the laundering of exotic species and I mean that
almost in the way that drug money is laundered from one bank to another. What I
learned and what I try to document in the book is that exotic species are moved
from place to place to place. You can think of it as if they are relayed, being
handed off from one person to another, kind of shunted through this pipeline in
hopes of making them disappear. They start their lives in what we think of as
legitimate institutions—such as zoos or university research laboratories—and
when those animals are no longer necessary or wanted, when there are too many in
the collection, those so-called "surplus" animals have to be moved out. And
there’s a system that’s been developed to move those animals out and sell them,
resell them, sell them again, move them on down the line; so ultimately the
paper trail disappears and everyone along the line has deniability if it becomes
known that an animal has ended up in a bad place.
If we see for example a canned hunt (or private hunting preserve) and someone
shooting exotic animals in a cage; if we see animals ending up in a basement
cage in horrendous conditions: everyone along the line can say "well those
weren’t my animals," and in most cases no one will be able to prove where the
animals came from. Animal Underworld is an attempt to document how those animals
are indeed moved through a system—where they start their lives and where they
end up—and to show with real paperwork how this kind of don’t-ask-don’t-tell
system works and how everyone plays this game with a wink and a nod: "Here take
my animal, move it along down the line," so that ultimately no one will be able
to point a finger and say "Aha! You’re doing bad things with your animals!"
Can you give an example of a paper trail?
Papers must be filed, typically in the state Department of Agriculture, that
chronicle the movement of animals from one state to another. Let’s say I run a
roadside zoo in Virginia, and I get animals in the spring and close in the fall
because I’m a seasonal operation. If I want to send animals to an auction, say,
in Ohio, I need to file paperwork with the Virginia Department of Agriculture
that shows I’m sending those animals out of state. So there is a paper trail.
The trick is to figure out whether people are indeed filing the required
paperwork and then to find it all. What we find is that in perhaps 85 percent of
cases people aren’t in fact filing those documents.
So animals are moved in the middle of the night—in trucks with no
documentation—and people are selling animals behind the scenes (perhaps at an
auction) so there’s no record of the transaction. But in at least some cases
records do exist and I try to follow the trail from point A to B to C so that I
can say with certainty: "Here’s where an animal started its life, here’s where
it went to, here’s where it was sold, and here’s who was buying at those
auctions." For the first time I’m able to reveal the system by which all these
animals are being moved from place to place.
There are many levels of record keeping. They may be at different federal
agencies, for example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state and local
agencies, police agencies—it’s all a matter of getting and piecing them all
together, hoping that you can figure out the truth about individual animals as
they move during their lives from perhaps dozens of venues until, in many cases,
a bad fate awaits them at the end of their lives.
Were you able to track the life of an individual animal?
When I set out to do this project, my hope was that I’d be able to chronicle
the movement of one animal from its birth to its death. Through all the
paperwork I collected I was actually able to do that in the case of a reindeer.
He was born on a game farm in the Yukon in Canada, then sold at an exotic animal
auction in Missouri, and was bought by an elderly couple who raised reindeer
along with other animals on their game farm in Iowa.
The reindeer was named Honker by this couple. When the husband died, caring for
the animals became too hard for his wife so she sold Honker and the other
animals. She resold Honker at the same auction in Missouri where he had been
bought a few years earlier. Honker was bought by a game farmer in Wisconsin. Ten
days later a client flew in from Indiana and shot Honker and, in the same day,
shot two other animals—a white tailed deer and a mule deer. The records were
falsified to make it look as if he shot three white tailed deer. Honker was then
brought to a local taxidermist.
It turns out that the guy who shot Honker was an official supporter of Safari
Club International, an organization that claims to abhor canned hunts because
they don’t encourage fair-chase hunting. Ironically, Honker ended up as a trophy
in this guy’s house in Indiana. That was what happened. But finding the records,
linking them to show that this was Honker was the proverbial needle in a
Do zoos have a role in the trade of exotic animals in the
If you look at the
front-end of the pipeline through which animals are sent, zoos are indeed there.
Zoos have been among the greatest providers of animals to the exotic animal
trade. There are a huge number of tigers in private hands in the U.S. being bred
like beagles by dealers who find ready places to sell them: That’s the legacy of
zoos. They don’t sell tigers anymore because they know people are watching.
So now we are seeing other species on the market instead. Zoos have a huge
so-called surplus problem. They have nowhere to send the surplus animals so they
dump them on dealers who re-sell them. So zoos, even though they’ll dispute it,
are in fact at the head end of the pipeline because they don’t want to breed
responsibly and are always looking for new species to replace the ones that the
public has grown tired of. Zoos are creating ready markets for new batches of
animals that become big in the trade.
What do you mean by "breeding responsibly"?
Giraffes, for example, are a big pull at zoos. Zoos have what they refer to
as "charismatic megafauna." These are the flagship species, the animals that are
a great draw. People don’t go to the zoo to see the miniature hippo or the Père
David’s deer. They go to see the panda and the giraffes and just about any kind
of baby. Zoos are by and large a baby factory because that’s what brings people
through the door.
Zoos have master plans for collections. A classic example is the National Zoo,
which has determined as part of its master plan that they’ll have three
giraffes: two adults—a male and a female—and one baby born every two years. Each
time a baby giraffe is born every TV station in Washington does a story, which
in turn brings out the public in huge numbers. But with the new baby, there are
now four giraffes because a baby was born two years earlier. All of a sudden
that two year old giraffe is shunted to the background. Two years earlier an
adoring public was standing there pointing at that spindly-legged baby giraffe,
but now what are they going to do with it? The zoo will say "well we can’t keep
it." If it’s a male, daddy is going to fight with it; if it’s a female, daddy is
going to want to breed with it, so we better get that two year old out of here.
I would call that irresponsible breeding because the zoo knows that they will
have to get rid of that giraffe and they know—because history tells them so—that
there is no good place to send it. At any given moment, when they try to find a
home for that unwanted giraffe, there are probably going to be 50 or so AZA
[American Zoo and Aquarium Association—the self-regulating organization of
accredited zoos] zoos that are also looking for a home for their unwanted
giraffes. As an AZA accredited zoo they are saying: "We are a cut above. We are
members of an elite club. We trust other members of this club to be good trading
partners and so we can entrust our animals to these zoos with great comfort."
But there are a lot of giraffes in search of homes and very few zoos that are
looking for them. Where are they going to send it? There are no takers. That
means that they’re going to have to send a giraffe outside of the club. If only
accredited AZA members are good guys, sending it outside the club more or less
ensures that the standards you believe are notable will not be met.
This isn’t pure speculation. Early in the 1990s the National Zoo had a year old
surplus giraffe named Michael whom they entrusted to a dealer who brought him to
an unaccredited roadside zoo in central New Jersey. Michael was paired with an
adult male giraffe—the very scenario that the National Zoo wanted to avoid and
the sort of thing they claim they will never do, because Michael would be
threatened by daddy. The adult male kicked and broke Michael’s neck, and killed
So the AZA zoos shirk their responsibility. It’s expediency; we don’t want the
animal, it’s not part of our master plan, let’s get rid of it, let’s send it to
a dealer and cross our fingers that it never comes back to haunt us.
What would you say is the public’s involvement in the continuation of this
trade of surplus animals?
I would say that by and large, the public is in total ignorance. When the
public comes out to see a new-born, everyone is goo-goo eyed over the baby, and
I admit there is a great allure about baby animals. Before I started doing this
research I was just as ignorant. If one day, the zoo has six zebras and next
time you go back there are five, who would know? No one counts. With the new
babies, people never ask: "where did the other animals go?" because if you think
about it, why should we?
We have entrusted people who work at the zoo to do right by us; they are the
ones who care for the animals on a daily basis. When you go to the zoo
everything at least looks good; you don’t see abuse. Concrete and steel are
changing to what looks like a natural habitat. Certainly, fake trees are not the
same as real trees in the wild, but the illusion is powerful and we feel
comforted that they are trying to do right by the animals. If you talk to zoo
keepers they do indeed care about the welfare of the animals and work hard to
care for them.
If we ever ask the question "Hey mister, wasn’t there another giraffe here?
Where did it go?", "It went to another zoo," "Well, OK, that sounds good enough
to me." Most AZA zoos are municipally funded, certainly they are not taking our
tax dollars and doing bad things, are they? So there’s a kind of trust going on.
I would say that once the public finds out about this phenomenon, if they don’t
take steps to force the zoos to change, then the public is equally culpable.
The whole exotic animal trade is like a pyramid. At the top there are a small
number of institutions—for the most part reputable—that have a lot of animals
that flow to the bottom, to auctions, dealers, canned hunts, roadside zoos, etc.
If you cut off the flow from the top of the pyramid, from AZA zoos and
universities, you can cut off the industry. If you cut off access to surplus
animals, it will reverse the trickle-down effect.
The public can make that choice. If indeed the problem is that it’s a baby game
and there is only room for a fixed number of species, will the public be willing
to put up with a birth every four, six or eight years to ensure that the two
year old doesn’t get sent to a bad place? Is the public willing to spend money
for a retirement facility for animals that are off exhibit? Is the public going
to decide they want some combination? "Well, we don’t want to pay more money,
but we don’t want the animals sent to bad places." So are we willing to approve
humane euthanasia to ensure that animals don’t go to dealers and possibly end up
in bad situations? A lot of people can’t deal with the idea of euthanasia.
If zoos and other establishments are unwilling to change, the public should
demand disclosure of where surplus animals are going. As a matter of public
record, these institutions will be forced to disclose what they are doing. Once
you embarrass these institutions by exposing their involvement in the trading of
endangered animals—when they know that everyone is watching—they won’t be so
What was the greatest shock and/or disappointment that you had while doing
The most troubling revelation was that I realized that no matter who
trumpets how much they care, they’re all in it together. That isn’t to say that
all AZA members don’t care—some have taken steps to change. But all reputable
zoos are doing business with disreputable zoos and dealers—which they ridicule.
They are hypocrites. If you look at the pipeline, as the animals move further
and further down there are any number of terrible places they can end up.
The greatest shock for me was to see how the animals become product or fodder.
At the auctions, for example, it’s as if people are selling carpets. No one
knows anything about the animals. They become nameless, walked anonymously
through the display ring like replaceable cogs in money-making ventures.
Everyone seems to be capitalizing.
Even those who own exotic pets think that what they’re doing is "good" for
endangered species—chaining a tiger to a pipe in the basement. They think
they’re conservationists. But these animals will never be repatriated into the
wild and they’re not doing them any good. It’s a pet-of-the-month club that is
fueled by American fickleness. We have not thought through the consequences.
Baby Lions for Sale!
The USDA, which enforces the
federal Animal Welfare Act, has nearly 17 pages of regulations pertaining to the
handling and transportation of dogs and cats, but the care of snow leopards and
other wild animals is dismissed in just seven pages. And the exotic species are
guaranteed much less protection: Domestic kittens, for example, can’t be sold in
commerce until they’re two months old and fully weaned, but a day-old lion may
be carted to an auction and sold to the highest bidder. What’s more, government
prosecutors, as a rule, have virtually no interest in protecting these animals.
Given a choice between pursuing a drug-trafficking case or an animal-permit
violation, prosecutors rarely opt for the latter.—From Animal Underworld
Endangered animals are the new blood diamonds as militias and warlords use
poaching to fund death.
- March 10, 2008
Sharon Begley - Newsweek
The article tells us of
an attack on stores of ivory in which three rangers were killed, and informs us
that some 100 are killed every year defending Africa's wildlife. Then Begley
"In an ominous sign of
how the killing of endangered animals has evolved from a crime committed by
small bands of unorganized, mostly poor operators, these attackers were
Janjaweed, the militia that has carried out genocidal attacks in Darfur. Lured
by easy money, the Janjaweed have expanded their killing fields to endangered
species. In the past two years, they have butchered hundreds of elephants around
Zakouma, say Chadian authorities, carrying the tusks back to Sudan, where they
are secreted on ships bound mostly for Asia—or traded for weapons.
"For the Janjaweed,
killing elephants is the least of its atrocities. But the militia's move into
ivory poaching signals a terrifying turn in the world's efforts to save
vanishing species. The battle is no longer just about the elephant's trumpet
never again echoing over the African savanna, or the Bengal tiger's roar being
heard only in memory. The threat posed by the contraband wildlife trade is now
also about the money it generates—wave upon wave of it—that is being used by
very bad people to do very bad things...."
We learn that poachers
have been traced to a Somali warlord and others who kill people -- and that the
market "has reached $10 billion a year and possibly twice that. China is the
largest market, with the United States a close second."
We read about shipments,
discovered too late, of 40 tons of contraband ivory, and "That represents 4,000
killed elephants, an indication of how brutally effective the new poachers are."
And we learn that the
highly endangered northern white rhino was making a comeback in Garamba National
Park rebounding from 13 to 32 by 2003. "But late that year Janjaweed militias
armed with AK-47s began arriving, and the slaughter began" and "As of last year,
there were two rhinos left in Garamba, a death sentence for that population."
We also read, "Hutu
extremists tied to the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, abducted and killed two baby
gorillas from Congo.
Although some black-market buyers prefer the primates alive, stuffed ones can
bring enough for a nice haul of assault rifles."
ends her article with:
the ultimate blame for drug lords who murder the innocent lies with users, so
the blame for a wildlife trade that sustains organized crime and genocidal
militias lies with the buyers. 'There is a vague awareness in America that some
things, they shouldn't be buying,' says McMurray. 'But the psychology seems to
be that if it's in a store [or online] it must be OK.' Americans who buy ivory
carvings (easily available online), Japanese who collect the ivory signature
seals called hankos and Chinese who clamor for 'medicines' made from tiger bone
are not supporting some lone poacher who's trying to feed his family. They're
putting money into the coffers of the Janjaweed, warlords and possibly even
worse actors. With the new wildlife traffickers, it's not only animals whose
lives are at stake."
The article includes a
photo gallery headed "Global Traffic in Wildlife", which provides more important
information. For example we see a baby macaque being held by the neck with the
"A macaque monkey that
sells for $10 at a bird market in Indonesia will likely be resold for $30,000 to
labs for testing. Although it is illegal to purchase an animal from the wild for
testing, establishing an animal's origins is often difficult."
World cops target traditional healers
over smuggled wildlife
By Dave Clark (AFP) – March 5, 2010
PARIS — Police seized tiger bones,
anteater scales and bear gall bladders in an international operation against the
use of endangered plants and animals in traditional medicine, officers said
Illegal animal and plant products
with a retail value of 10 million euros (13.6 million dollars) were seized in a
month-long drive carried out by forces around the world, the global law
enforcement agency Interpol said. "National wildlife enforcement authorities,
police, customs and specialised units from 18 countries across all five
continents worked together as part of Operation Tram which ran from 1 to 28
February," Interpol said.
Operation Tram "revealed a large
amount of medicines either containing or marketing the use of illegal
ingredients such as tiger, bear and rhinoceros," according to the French-based
international coordinating body. British police targeted a business selling
medicine from the Chinese tradition, but an Interpol spokeswoman told AFP the
global operation was against all use of endangered species in cures from various
For centuries, traditional Chinese
healers have used tiger bone to treat arthritis, rhinoceros horn for fevers and
convulsions and bear bile to treat various infections, thus encouraging poachers
to hunt rare animals.
In Rome, Italian forest rangers
said they had seized 30,000 products containing wildlife, worth about one
million euros, after checking more than 3,000 individuals, planes, baggage, and
container ships. Arrest warrants were issued against 40 individuals or
"We noticed there is great deal of
illegal traffic in Italy," the Italian Interpol director Colonel Giuseppe
Verrocchi told AFP, adding that rare plants and parts of tigers, bears and
pangolins -- a scaly anteater -- were seized.
"The products were imported
directly from India, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam through the ports of
Mestre, Trieste and Naples and Milan airport," a statement by the Italian forest
In London, the Metropolitan Police
raided a Chinese traditional medicine business and found what seemed to be plant
species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
"Most traditional Chinese
medicines are perfectly legal. However, a small number of people continue to
trade in illegal products containing endangered species," said Sergeant Ian Knox
from the force's wildlife crime unit. "This trade threatens some of the world's
most iconic species, and it will continue as long as the demand exists," he
added. A director of the company that owns the raided properties will be
questioned once the plants have been analysed, Scotland Yard said.
Police in Australia, Canada, the
Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, Georgia, India, Italy, New Zealand, Nigeria,
Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, Turkey and Zimbabwe also took
part in the operation.
"The important cultural,
historical and religious values of traditional medicines are recognised by the
law enforcement community," said senior British officer Chief Constable Richard
Crompton."However, the increased use of endangered species in medicines can no
longer be tolerated as it places extreme pressure on their very survival," he
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF),
still known in North America as the World Wildlife Fund, welcomed the raids.
"Given that this crosses many borders, coordinating effective efforts to tackle
the illegal trade in wildlife is not easy," said Heather Sohl, who advises the
WWF on wildlife trafficking. "It's great to see 18 countries all working
simultaneously ... This can be a blueprint for future action on other areas of
illicit wildlife trade too."
E-commerce in protected wildlife booming
By Anne Chaon (AFP) – 17 March 2010
DOHA — From ivory trinkets to live parrots, the
Internet has become a virtual supermarket in imperilled species that is hard to
track and even harder to crack, say experts.
With a quarter of humanity coming online over
the last 15 years, the scale of the problem has caught global wildlife police
offguard, according to the 175-nation Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species (CITES), meeting through March 25 in Doha.
"Contemporary international law has fallen
behind in its consideration of wildlife trade conducted via the Internet," CITES
admits. With few resources of its own, CITES has
delegated the task of assessing the scope of illicit e-commerce to
An ambitious, 11-nation investigation carried
out by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), released in Doha, has
uncovered a flourishing traffic in live animals, including primates, rare
reptiles and exotic birds. It also found thousands of products -- supposed
culinary delicacies and health potions to jewellery -- extracted from big cats,
rhinos, elephants and bears. All the contraband came from flora and fauna listed
on CITES Appendix I, which bans international commerce.
Specimens and items spotted during a six-week
survey in mid-2008 had an advertised value of nearly four million dollars (three
million euros). "Overall, the results show a high volume of wildlife trade
conducted via the Internet, with thousands of CITES-listed specimens offered for
sale on the Internet every week," according to a report of the probe. Seventy percent of the trade was based in the
United States, with China and Britain each accounting for about eight percent.
Among live species, exotic birds dominated,
while ivory was by far the top category among derived products. "It is rarely
whole tusks. Usually is it small items," said Celine Sissler-Bienvenue, IFAW's
senior elephant expert.
Grace Ge Gabriel, who heads the organisation's
China operations, has seen a boom in online sales of tiger wine, a combination
of rice wine and tiger bones that has been typically aged three, six or nine
years. "Online, these ads are mainly targeting the Chinese diaspora," she said.
Likewise potions containing bear bile, used in
traditional Chinese medicines to treat ailments ranging from liver disorders to
haemorrhoids to hepatitis. The fluid is extracted over months or years from live
bears through a drip tube surgically inserted through the animal's abdomen. "The
Chinese market is saturated, but Canadian and US customs are constantly seizing
shipments," Ge Gabriel said. In some cases, Internet sales may be driving
species not yet listed under the Convention toward extinction.
In Doha, CITES officials highlighted the plight
of a small cousin of the salamander called Kaiser's spotted newt (Neurergus
kaiser), native to Iran, which has submitted a proposal for Appendix I status to
be voted next week. Only 1,000 specimens remain in the wild, experts estimate,
but a 2006 Internet survey found several sites advertising the colourful
creatures for 300 dollars (220 euros) a piece.
"One Ukrainian company said they had sold more
than 200 -- all caught in the wild -- in one year," said Ernie Cooper, an
investigator in Canada for an environmental NGO called TRAFFIC.
Most wildlife sales on the Internet are
small-scale, the surveys showed. "The large crime syndicates have much better
ways to sell their merchandise, even in shops," said Ge Gabriel.
Since 2007, major online auction sites -- including eBay
and Chinese giant taobao.com
-- have prohibited trade in ivory and live species. But even as law enforcement
has begun to crack down, online vendors have become more wily, obfuscating their
wares with descriptions such as "made from the teeth of the world's largest land
And even if police can trace an offer to a fixed
address, products have often been sold within a matter of hours, officials say.
November 26, 2012
Dying mother rhino leads her calf
to farm lodge after being attacked by poachers
December 12, 2012
Illegal wildlife trade
'threatening national security', says WWF
exotic trade; BC's legislation