Food

Endangered Species on the Grill: The Black Market in Illegal Meat Flourishes in the US

Millions of fork-twirling gourmands -- many of them in the U.S. -- are eating endangered wildlife trafficked by international criminal networks.

Can shellfish cry?

Ask the 4,756 abalone bagged by smugglers and confiscated in a single recent raid on a house in Cape Town, South Africa.

It's easier to picture the pain of warm-blooded creatures, such as the two snow leopards and three ibexes whose poachers were arrested last month in China's Xinjiang province.

As for whether reptiles can cry, ask the 700 endangered rat-snakes and 582 endangered pig-nose turtles confiscated earlier this month at Jakarta, Indonesia's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. They were destined to Hong Kong, for soup.

All over the world, wild creatures are being poached and slaughtered by the millions -- to be eaten. Not in the meager kitchens of subsistence hunters, you understand, but by fork-twirling gluttons at the far ends of vast, criss-crossing, blood-encrusted international -- and criminal --networks. It happens because in Chicago and New York and Paris and nearly everywhere, some folks would rather eat baboon than beef. It happens because, somewhere, it's dinnertime -- and for some, only forbidden flesh will do.

Wildlife crime is is big business. No one knows exactly how big, because it's so pervasive that it's virtually impossible to track, but estimates run into the billions per year. Each country has its own legislation regarding wildlife trafficking, but these laws are only as strong as they are enforceable. Adopted in 1973, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a conservation-minded agreement between 175 nations aiming to regulate, if not prohibit, the wildlife trade. Again, it's a great idea that, for some, is great to flout.

As felonies go, wildlife crime really upsets us. Why? Millions of animals die in slaughterhouses every year, and while those deaths gall some of us, the notion of slain apes and elephants sparks a more universal outrage, even among carnivores. Does the wholesale killing of wild creatures anguish us more because they're wild and thus, like us, born free? (In which case, were slaves born into slavery less tragic, and less enslaved, than those shipped overseas in chains?)

We hear stories like that of the woman who faced a New York City judge last December for having smuggled dozens of monkey and baboon limbs and torsos into the United States from Guinea, and we'd like to think we know better. We'd like to think we've outgrown everything that hunting, killing and eating wild animals entails. Our ancestors did that, and through our modern eyes it seems primitive, speciesist and gross -- and we're ashamed.

"The United States is one of the world's largest, if not the largest, consuming nations for wildlife products. This includes wildlife used for food, whether for cultural reasons or luxury markets," says Leigh Henry, a senior policy officer for the World Wildlife Fund and the international wildlife-trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. "Since the demand continues, so does the trafficking."

Nope: Neither environmental enlightenment nor Animal Planet have stopped it from happening here.

These stories seldom make the mainstream news. Last May, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents at Newark, New Jersey's Liberty International Airport seized over 19 pounds of antelope and cane-rat meat from a passenger arriving from Uganda via Amsterdam. (Cane rats are cat-sized rodents found throughout sub-Saharan Africa.) A CBP photograph shows this meat piled high: dark, dry, ragged hunks resembling jerky. It was 2009's sixth CBP seizure in Newark alone of bushmeat, the term for the flesh of wild creatures traditionally savored in Africa for their flavor, protein and wild status. Concealed in luggage, in sleeves, inside packages of other food, it flows over our borders.

A July 2006 report tallied over 62 pounds of bushmeat confiscated that year at just one American airport: Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International. The meat was thought to have come from Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and/or Liberia. During another Atlanta seizure in February 2009, agents confiscated two pounds of wild tortoise meat and 31 tortoise eggs from an overseas traveler. The accompanying photo shows a tortoise's midsection, gory and trailing tissue where it has been torn from the shell. Its hind legs remain intact, claws and all.

Meat products from wild game being brought into the United States are subject to many layers of legislation including Animal, Plant and Health Inspection Services regulations and the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, enforced by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some of this legislation is conservation-minded: Import and export of endangered wildlife species, and products made from them, is just plain illegal in the United States. And much of the legislation stems from health concerns, as meat and poultry are notorious transmitters of deadly diseases that can infect human beings as well as livestock.

Regulations on bringing meat and meat products into this country are strict overall, with an ever-shifting array of foreign nations put on the restricted list based on disease outbreaks around the world. The long list of maladies the USDA is striving to defend us (and the American livestock industry) from includes African swine fever, swine vesicular disease, rinderpest, foot-and-mouth disease, avian influenza (aka bird flu) and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka mad-cow disease). Nearly all meat products from Nigeria, for example, are currently prohibited because Nigeria is on the list of nations affected by both the highly pathogenic avian influenza and foot-and-mouth disease.

Prohibited items undeclared by international passengers -- such as the Atlanta tortoise and the Newark cane rat -- are confiscated and disposed of by CBP agents. Smugglers are punished.

"Civil penalties may be assessed for violations and may range up to $1,000 for a first-time offense," explains CPB press officer Erlinda Byrd "Depending on whether the confiscated, undeclared items are intentionally concealed or determined to be for commercial use, civil penalties may be assessed as high as $50,000 for individuals." The same fines apply to prohibited animal products sent through the international mail.

Granted, not all of the wildlife trafficked into -- and inside -- the United States is meant to be eaten. Some of it is destined for the vast underground exotic-pets market. Some is stuffed and sold as trophies. Some, like the 12 gallons of scorpions confiscated one day last October in Brownsville, Texas from a Mexican traveler who planned to encase them in lucite for sale at flea markets, are fashioned into trinkets.

And parts of many wild creatures are sold as alleged medicine: Bear bile, for example, is popular in Asian communities among those who claim it cures liver and stomach problems. A man was charged in Seattle last month with illegally killing six black bears and trafficking in their parts; during an earlier seizure, the same man was caught in possession of 18 dried bears' gallbladders. But in a country that naturally overflows with good (and legal) food, including some of the world's premier meats, business is nonetheless booming in prohibited flesh, much of it from endangered species. And the dirty little secret behind this trade -- that is, besides mad-cow disease -- is the fact that ethnic communities are its biggest customers.

"We see bushmeat coming into the U.S. illegally to feed demand from expatriate African communities," says the WWF's Leigh Henry. Antelope and cane rat are common, "but occasionally species of greater conservation concern are imported as well, including great apes."

Grilled gorilla -- in America?

Pass the salt. A team organized by UC Berkeley professor of wildlife ecology Justin Brashares has found chimp and gorilla meat being sold at markets in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles -- as well as London, Toronto, Montreal, Paris and Brussels. The project got its start when Brashares asked a Ghanaian taxi driver in New York whether he missed bushmeat since leaving Africa. The taxi driver said he didn't miss it at all and offered to show Brashares where bushmeat could be bought regularly in Brooklyn.

It's true for all of us that the foods of our youth retain a hold on us, an enchantment of history and identity. That's why the market for exotic meat has gone global. And that's why, among those who grew up eating bushmeat, "it has a cultural cachet," says Dale Peterson, the author of Eating Apes (University of California Press, 2003). "If you go into a big city" -- in Africa, in America, wherever Africans live -- "you can buy ape meat. It's more expensive than domestic meat, but people will pay for it because they want to be reminded of life in the village where their grandparents are.

"This is not just a conservation problem but a serious public-health problem. The hunting and consumption of ape meat is the origin of HIV1" -- researchers believe that AIDS entered our species when Africans ate chimpanzee meat infected with Simian Immunodeficiency Virus -- "and there are a lot of other similar lentiviruses out there in primate meat. We know that now, and we live in a world where instead of a few people dying in a village from eating a piece of infected meat, the meat is transported by someone on a bicycle, then someone on a truck, then someone on a plane, and you get a global pandemic, and that's what AIDS is."

Ape meat comprises only a small percentage of the bushmeat sold and eaten by Africans worldwide. Some of that meat is elephant, which was the subject of Peterson's subsequent book Elephant Reflections (University of California Press, 2009).

"Elephant-eating is quite extensive," he affirms. "In Central Africa, where the bush-trade business is biggest, it's very common to kill an elephant and pack up the meat as well as the tusks, and sell both." Of all bushmeat, ape meat anguishes him the most. His voice catches when he speaks of being offered chimpanzee hands to eat in Cameroon.

"Apes look humanlike. And if you know them well enough, they also act humanlike." Chimpanzees, after all, share 98 percent of our DNA. That's exactly why many Africans -- along with most people everywhere -- shun ape meat, Peterson says. But it's also exactly why so many crave it.

"At least fifty percent of people who eat ape meat for cultural reasons do so because the ape is humanlike, and the mythology is that by eating it, you'll acquire superhuman strength. In cultures where people eat ape meat, it's typically considered 'the man's meat.'" Like so many other trafficked animal parts, it's considered a bloody version of Viagra.

"This meat travels across borders very freely," Peterson says. "Yes, ape meat is illegal everywhere, and yes, lots and lots and lots of local laws make it illegal, but nobody pays attention to them. I'm amazed at how little the global bushmeat trade has become common knowledge. But there's a strong resistance to talking about it, because it could easily seem racist -- blaming the Africans for what they eat. It's a delicate subject ... but I do think we have the right to say, 'Stop doing this. We live in the modern world now.'"

For wildlife, modernity has its good and bad points. A good point is the rise of environmental activism. A bad point is the ease and speed by which technology now lets traffickers transport meat and announce to their customers that it's for sale.

"The U.S. has one of the most well-resourced wildlife enforcement operations in the world," says the WWF's Leigh Henry, "but there are too many ports, airports, and individuals and vehicles crossing our borders to intercept all of the trade. We have to work to reduce demand for species of conservation concern, raise public awareness of the threats facing them, and increase the resources available to enforcement officials if we're to see the trade stop."

That's an uphill battle, waged not only by activist groups and national agencies --on a single typical day last year, for example, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents seized over 4,291 prohibited plant, meat and animal byproducts -- but by their counterparts in each state. Overseeing vast seashores, exotic wildlife and thriving ethnic communities, Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife agents "deal not only with domestic issues but with shipments of wildlife coming in and going out," says FFW investigator Curtis Brown.

One recent problem was "huge, untold numbers of turtles" being caught in Florida lakes, ponds and streams and "being exported for the Asian market ... because Asian countries were depleting their native turtle populations, and they love to eat softshell and snapping turtle. They put them in soup." Another issue is what Brown calls "back-door sales," by which "Asian restaurants were buying any fish that anyone brought in; they'd label it sushi-grade this or that, and put it on the buffet. This is fraud at the consumer level. When people eat something that they think meets official sanitation standards, but it doesn't, that can get a little scary," Brown says.

"Every time we turn around, some new animal is being utilized in the commercial market. The Russian community likes caviar," which is garnered illegally from Florida sturgeon and paddlefish. The Caribbean community savors conch, whose harvesting is prohibited here as well. Queen conch, an internationally protected endangered species, is gathered off Florida's coast and sold internationally by smuggling rings such as the one caught in Canada in 2007, when two Florida residents were nabbed by Environment Canada Wildlife Enforcement officers. Under that country's laws the pair received fines of U.S. $10,000 for importing queen conch meat into Canada. During the preceding 18-month investigation, their ring had moved some 264,000 pounds of the meat.

Another Asian standby is shark-fin soup.

"Typically we catch people selling the fins," Brown laments. That's a conservation tragedy, in that great white sharks are an endangered species. It's also a form of animal cruelty because shark-fin harvesters typically sever fins from live sharks, throwing the animals back in the ocean and leaving them to die a slow, painful death. But this form of wildlife trafficking has yet another layer, Brown explains:

"The bottom line is that sometimes you can fin a shark and it can survive. And if a finned shark survives, it will swim ashore and eat anything it can find," because this is easier for a disabled creature than hunting at sea.

"We just don't want finless sharks swimming ashore."

Like their Florida counterparts, California Fish and Game agents must contend with hundreds of miles of coastline -- as well as forests deep enough, mountains high enough and deserts desolate enough to hide much malfeasance. Their work inspired novelist Kirk Russell to write a series of thrillers featuring CFG warden John Marquez, whose Special Operations Unit tackled abalone poachers in Shell Games (Chronicle Books, 2003), bear-bile traffickers in Night Game (Chronicle Books, 2004) and sturgeon poachers in Dead Game (Chronicle Books, 2007).

Russell spent over six years doing ride-alongs with the CFGSO unit. He saw many different kinds of wildlife crime, "but really it's all the same; it's about money," Russell says. "It's just the explanations that differ. The apparent truth is: If it can be caught and sold, it will be. Whether it's somebody just trying to make a few bucks to buy drinks or an out-of-work carpenter trying to sell a sturgeon to pay for his daughter's cancer medicine so she doesn't die, wildlife is money. Is it as simple as greed or cultural habit, the poor family just trying to survive? I think it's about life, respect for life," says the author. An avid hiker, he ponders: "I think at some point walking along it's natural to ask: Can't we live as part of this rather than in control or in opposition? ... Is wildlife truly another commodity?"

Unfortunately, yes. Yes, it is.

"I'm picturing a beach south of Fort Bragg near dawn in a low tide when the streets with beach access are lined with cars because with a minus two-foot tide it's easier to get in and get your limit of abalone -- and, if you're poaching with a group, easier to coordinate. The wardens are up against improbable odds, especially with the slow breeders like abalone and sturgeon," Russell says. "The only real hope is the public. It's going to take us to save these species."

Well, there's "us" and there's us. Inside and outside this country, the wildlife trade is booming like you wouldn't believe. Eating Apes author Dale Peterson describes visiting an area in northern Myanmar along the Chinese border that is a smugglers' row, perpetually lined for miles with captured animals, dead and alive, whole and in parts, ready to be brought into China and perhaps beyond.

"Everything's for sale, from puppies to bears," Peterson says.

"When I see Africans selling ape meat, I don't agree with what they're doing, and I wish they would stop, but I don't feel moral outrage, because I think they're basically decent people who just think differently about animals. Yet I actually grew quite angry in Asia. It was just so egregious. Burma has this wonderful Buddhism, and the people in many ways seem very gentle, yet you get to the edge of China and animals don't exist anymore as animals. They're just objects. I think that's worse than the way it is in Africa," where the meat of certain animals is relished because the animals themselves are so admired. By contrast, Asia's wildlife trade "is crueler. It's stupider. There's something so empty about it. I recoiled."

The expansion of China's economy has meant more pocket money for a billion-strong population. And it's impossible to deny that many want to spend it on exotic meats. Traveling in southern China in the '90s, I saw cats, dogs and snakes in cages stacked up outside restaurants where hawkers urged us to come inside and taste them cooked. We wandered horrified through outdoor meat markets in a country whose beloved smuggled meats include the endangered pangolin, a docile scaly anteater whose flesh and blood are said -- surprise, surprise --to boost virility.

Conservationists tracking the global wildlife trade compare China to a vacuum cleaner, virtually sucking the wildlife out of Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In all of those countries, grinding poverty makes poaching appear attractive indeed. Pol Pot's brutal regime long served as a default conservation device in Cambodia: not because Pol Pot loved animals, but because his Khmer Rouge forces ruled the forests where poachers would otherwise roam. These days, poaching gangs thrive, using landmines to mangle both their prey and law-enforcement officers. As a result, Cambodia's tiger, bear and elephant populations are dwindling as prices for the meat of these animals soars -- largely in China, where the fact that the lunar Year of the Tiger begins this week is all too ironic. Conservation experts estimate that in all of vast China, only 50 wild tigers remain: not so surprising in a land where a single tiger's parts -- including paws and penis -- are collectively worth from US $10,000 to $70,000, according to a World Bank report.

At a Beijing ceremony on February 2, over 100 Chinese authors signed an anti-trafficking banner created by the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The CWCA has also been enlisting chefs to join its "No Cooking Rare, Precious Wildlife" campaign, because rare, precious wildife is indeed cooked there.

And here.

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, most recently The Scavenger's Manifesto (Tarcher Press, 2009). Read more of Anneli's writings on scavenging at scavenging.wordpress.com.
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