04:49 PM

New Report Shows Extent of Wildlife Trafficking From Latin America to the United States

Lack of funding leaves ports vulnerable to illegal trafficking

Washington (October 13, 2015) – The United States is one of the world’s largest consumers of illegal smuggled wildlife and wildlife products, with a domestic market value estimated at $2 billion. While demand is shockingly high in this country for trafficked goods, a new exhaustive report by Defenders of Wildlife identifies a lack of funding and capacity for domestic wildlife law enforcement at our borders and ports of entry as primarily to blame. 

While much media attention has been directed recently towards the plight of African elephants and the smuggling of ivory, this report, “Combating Wildlife Trafficking from Latin America to the United States,” focuses on an often-overlooked region, Latin America, which for purposes of this report includes Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.  

One of the tragic revelations in this report is that 20 percent of the seized species identified are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendix I, which includes species affected by trade and threatened with extinction.  CITES Appendix I bans all commercial trade in listed species. It was found that the most commonly trafficked animals from Latin America include queen conch, sea turtles, caimans, crocodiles and iguanas.  The true scale and impact of the illegal international wildlife trade pouring into this country is almost impossible to completely quantify, but it is clear that the illegal items actually seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement are only the tip of the iceberg.

The report also shows that the Fish and Wildlife Service is tragically underfunded and understaffed to address this crisis.  The Office of Law Enforcement has the funds to employ only 130 wildlife inspectors nationwide to process legal wildlife shipments, intercept illegal wildlife shipments and enforce national and international wildlife protection laws.  There are 328 ports of entry to the United States, but only 18 are designated for the import/export of wildlife and staffed full-time by Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors.

The following is a statement from Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark:

 “As a former Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I have always been extremely proud of the tremendous dedication and commitment of the Service’s wildlife inspectors and special agents who are doing the best that they can with grossly inadequate resources. This report reveals the shocking level of trade in illegal wildlife here in the United States and shows us that wildlife trafficking is highly varied and goes well beyond ivory.

“Most Americans don’t realize the threat the illegal wildlife trade poses to the Latin American region, one of the most biologically rich and diverse in the world, and that demand in the United States is fueling it. Many endangered and threatened animals in Latin America are being decimated by poaching and overharvesting and are smuggled into the United States, including queen conch, sea turtles and caimans. Wildlife trafficking harms thousands of declining species all over the world, and Latin America is sadly no exception.

“Combating wildlife trafficking in this country requires a multifaceted approach: we need to educate consumers in order to eliminate the demand for illegal wildlife and wildlife products in the United States, make sure our ports of entry have adequate wildlife law enforcement capacity for the detection and deterrence of illegal shipments at our borders and treat wildlife trafficking as a serious crime. If we can’t fight the illegal wildlife trade on these fronts, we’ll not be able to stop the flow of threatened and endangered wildlife goods into the United States from Latin America and the rest of the world. It is particularly important to educate consumers about the devastating impact of their purchases since if we can curtail and eliminate market demand, we will eliminate the financial incentive for poaching and smuggling. The time to act is now.”

Background:  To craft the report, Defenders of Wildlife analyzed data on past wildlife seizures at ports of entry from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement Management Information System (LEMIS) database. The report concludes with recommendations for combating wildlife trafficking in the United States, including dramatically increasing funding for Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife inspectors and special agents at the ports of entry, educating consumers and strategically utilizing the incredibly detailed data found in the LEMIS database.

The report, “Combating Wildlife Trafficking from Latin America to the United States,” outlines the most common illegal trade routes from Latin American countries of export to U.S. ports of entry: (Mexico to El Paso, Texas, San Diego, California and Louisville, Kentucky, and from Haiti and the Bahamas to Miami, Florida) It also determines the most-trafficked animals from the region listed under the Endangered Species Act and CITES.  Seized shipments included a wide variety of illegal wildlife and items made from them, including shells, skins, meat, eggs, shoes and jewelry.

Clear guidelines for consumers include:

Do not purchase items or eat foods that may contain illegal wildlife or derivative parts. Ask before you purchase:

  • What is this product made of?
  • Where did it come from?
  • Was it acquired legally and can you show that?
  • Do I need any special documents or permits to take this item home?


When in doubt, rule it out!


To read the full report or our six-page summary, you can visit:




Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @defendersnews.