Environmental Criminals: Coming To A Market Near You


Ruby Lane, Antique Tortoise Shell Jewelry Box - From 1901

Tiger bones, tropical birds, tortoise shells, and rare palms - these are the currency of environmental criminals.

Environmental crimes abound - but not in the places you might think. Environmental criminals steal in broad daylight and sell in open markets. They rob from forests, swamps, deserts, beaches, and coral reefs. Their illegal bootie can be found in plant nurseries, aquarium and pet stories, home decorating businesses, and jewelry, fashion and trinket shops, right around the corner from our homes and businesses.
Dr. Brendan Moyle, a New Zealand researcher investigating the Chinese black market, busted the myth that tiger bone products were sold primarily through traditional medicine shops. Instead, his research uncovered a network of small conspiracies operating outside formal markets.

Only 4,000 tigers remain.
There are 4,000 tigers left in the wild. More tigers live in zoos than in their natural habitat. The same is true for highly sought-after tropical birds such as the critically endangered Bali starling (Leucopsar rothschildi).

$5,000 for a starling
International trade has pushed the price tag of one Bali starling to over USD $5,000. The Bali starling is found only in the West Bali National Park, a remote corner of Bali island, Indonesia. After twenty years, several million dollars, repeated failed reintroductions, and an armed raid in 1999 that stole the entire captive breeding stock awaiting release in the Park, the wild population is estimated at 50 individuals.

These numbers are so low, Birdlife International has suggested a new label for the Bali starling and other species with extraordinarily low numbers of breeding pairs: "possibly extinct."

If extinction means 100% population loss, then certain species of sea turtles are very close. Turtle populations in the Caribbean have decreased 99% from their historical ranges.

Tortoise shell is the new ivory.
Despite a worldwide ban in 1973 on the sale of tortoise shell products by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, cheap tourist markets and internet sales abound. Tortoise shell products (guitar picks, combs, barrettes) made from the critically endangered Hawksbill turtles are decimating species that formerly numbered in the millions.

Hundreds of years ago, the combined populations of green turtles and Hawskbill turtles exceeded 100 million. Some accounts told of turtles covering the surfaces of Caribbean island waters as far as the eye could see.

Slow-moving sponge eaters, Hawksbills can live in the wild for 50-60 years. In the past three turtle generations around 85% (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/8005/0) of nesting Hawksbill females around the world have disappeared.

'The loss of even a single nesting site makes a permanent, irreversible dent in the sea turtle population,' says Loren McClenachan of the San Diego-based Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

By eating sea grass and sponges, turtles act as ecosystem engineers, keeping other species in balance. Imagine if the African plains suddenly lost all of their ungulates - no more antelopes, zebras, or wildebeests. Superimpose this image on the underwater landscape of the Caribbean, and you can begin to understand why Caribbean reefs and fisheries have declined so precipitously.

Omar Gonzalez and Carmen Hernandez stand in front of confiscated plant collections in the high-security greenhouses of the National University of Mexico botanical gardens.In Mexico, populations of Beaucarnea spp. - known as "ponytail" or "elephant foot" palms - have been decimated in their native habitat by private collectors.

A recent raid by the environmental crime unit of the Mexico City police on an urban nursery recovered 500 plants. Half of the plants ended up in the National University Botanical Gardens of Mexico, where the staff, mixing humor with the serious goal of conservation education, planted the confiscated palms in a sector of their collections known as the "illegal garden".

Beaucarnea plant collections are used to raise awareness of Mexican citizens of the plant's endangered status and to train police officers to recognize the plants in future operations.

The garden has also developed a thriving propagation business for other endangered native species - cacti, succulents, orchids, and other flowering plants, that are sold in the garden shop with an educational message.


The "illegal garden" of native Beaucarnea palms, used to educate visitors about biodiversity conservation.

This shop is one part of the solution to environmental crimes. Conservationists, once vehemently opposed to any type of commercial trade, are now promoting certification programs for the legal sale of endangered species. Captive breeding and reforestation programs enable threatened timber, reptiles, fish, and songbird species, to be legally sold by entrepreneurs, many of whom are equally passionate about conservation and profit.

Another part of the solution involves constant vigilance - research and monitoring efforts by teams of researchers, practitioners, and communities. Earthwatch has sponsored applied turtle research and conservation programs for over two decades years, where Earthwatch volunteers help local residents monitor turtle nesting beaches 24/7. Current projects conserve Leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles in Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago, and black sea turtles in Mexico.

But the most important part of the solution lies in us, the consumers. Educated consumers make better choices. You can help monitor endangered species by monitoring your own purchases. Ask shop owners: "Where does this product come from? Is it endangered or sustainably produced?" Demand not only fair trade, but ethical trade.

More posts on animal trade.
Killing Rare Animals Funds Terror
Fashionable Exotic Skins Threaten Species
DNA Kit to Fight Illegal Animal Trading

Tags: Animals | Endangered Species