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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.

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