If you're looking for some evidence that humans are a pretty selfish and ignorant piece of work, look no further than the National Wildlife Property Repository at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver, Colorado. Our Friday field trip took us to a 22,000 square foot warehouse loaded with confiscated wildlife items, including those made from endangered and threatened species.
Big game trophies, medicines, clothing, shoes, the tackiest tchotchkes imaginable - all made from animals. Think that alligator skin looks good on the alligator? It'll look even better on your new pair of cowboy boots. Like how pretty those shells are? Turn 'em into brightly colored artwork. Appreciate the gorgeous stripes of a tiger? Why not have one made into a rug?
Do I sound upset? I am. I was pretty close to tears a couple of times of this trip (which, for the record, I'm glad we did but man, what a downer). The Repository is a giant storage space, reminiscent of an airplane hangar, filled with row upon row of industrial blue steel shelves. All of those shelves are piled high with confiscated goods, stored in plastic bags to protect them from rodents, dust and bugs. We couldn't take pictures in the actual warehouse so I'm going to try to describe for you what I saw.
- 8 foot long curved elephant tusks;
- Polar bear rugs;
- 5 gallon plastic bags packed with the dried bodies of seahorses, stacked three feet high,
- Scores of multi-colored pairs of cowboy boots and stiletto boots made of snakeskin, alligator, caiman; all dyed improbably bright colors ranging from pink to aquamarine to forest green;
- Tigers, tigers, tigers. Fully stuffed and mounted tiger specimens; dozens of mounted tiger heads, mouths agape in frozen snarls; tiger skulls; tiger skins; tiger rugs with heads attached; jewelry made of tiger bones and tiger teeth;
- Turtle and tortoise shells, stacked like poker chips;
- 10 giant plastic boxes full of crushed ivory. About 16 months ago, the US took 6 tons of confiscated ivory and put it through a rock crusher, with the goal of sending a message to poachers and their customers. You can see a video of the crush here.
- Three turtles holding wooden musical instruments, mounted to look like some demented jazz band;
- A rhino head, rhino feet turned into trashcans, baby rhino feet turned into ashtrays;
- Vials of bear bile, boxes of walrus penises, powdered rhino horn - all considered aphrodisiacs (sadly, testing has shown these items to be laced with Viagra, which only increases the belief that these items are effective)
I could go on but you get the picture. If it swam, walked, flew or crawled, it's there. Side note: there are no live animals, although those are also confiscated when found. They will sometimes end up in zoos or wildlife refuges. Or they might get repatriated and returned to the wild. Or they're simply euthanized - there's no where for them to go.
The Repository is the only one in the US and the items that end up here come from all over the country. Most are found by wildlife inspectors as goods come in through major ports and airports. Some people bringing them in are just ignorant - they bought some trinket overseas and didn't realize it was illegal. Others are actively smuggling, trying to cash in on part of what's become a $20-billion-a-year business. Not surprisingly, with just 300 inspectors, Fish & Wildlife is woefully understaffed to deal with the problem. Criminals have an exceedingly high chance of slipping through unnoticed.
The Obama administration released a statement last week, introducing a plan to be more aggressive about trafficking, as well as to put pressure on Asian and African countries, which are often the source of both supply and demand for these items. It's a step in the right direction but the animals being targeted are going to need a lot more help. Reports estimate that 100,000 elephants have been killed for their tusks since 2010. There are only 3,200 tigers left in the wild. And with that much illegal money in play, it will take a concerted effort on the part of governments around the world - not to mention better behavior by humans in general - to prevent these animals and a lot of other species from being wiped out.