Endangered Animal Smuggling Increases for the First Time in Nearly a Decade

Smuggling from Latin America mirrors immigration trends

By Matthew Sussis on December 17, 2018

As I introduced in a recent Backgrounder, illegal smuggling of live wildlife across the U.S. southern border and through ports of entry is closely tied to the criminal networks involved in illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Newly available animal smuggling data from 2017 highlights this close connection between the illicit movement of people and animals across our southern border.

For background, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) keeps track of all endangered animal seizures into the country as part of a multilateral treaty signed in 1975 entitled CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Analyzing the data from CITES can reveal key trends regarding which animals are being smuggled, which countries these animals are coming from, and for what purpose they are being smuggled (e.g. commercial vs. personal).

The CITES data for 2017 is now available, and despite the passage of legislation in 2016 intended to crack down on animal smuggling (the END Wildlife Trafficking Act) it worryingly shows a year-over-year uptick in live animal smuggling into the United States for the first time in nearly a decade.


Figure 1. Seizures of Live Animals
by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service



Source: CITES Trade Database, Fish and Wildlife Service

In 2017, 157 live endangered animals were seized by FWS that were being smuggled across the northern or southern border, or through various American ports. While that's still far lower than the record high seizures of a decade ago, it does mark a slight increase from the 148 seizures in 2016 — the first increase since 2008-2009.

Animal smugglers and human smugglers from Latin America are often connected to the same cartels and travel the same routes. And they require many of the same federal resources and personnel from the Department of Homeland Security to combat. As such, any analysis of animal smuggling requires a focus on Latin America.

Historically, Latin America has accounted for over one-quarter of all live, endangered animals seized in the United States. The biggest offender by far is Mexico (accounting for 9.7 percent of all seizures), followed by Guyana (2.0 percent), and Colombia (1.6 percent). However, in 2017, Latin American seizures fell to just 14 percent of all animal seizures:


Table 1. Latin American Countries Accounted for 14% of Seizures in 2017


Country Number Pct. of Total
Australia 14 8.9%
Aruba 1 0.6%
Belgium 1 0.6%
Benin 5 3.2%
Brazil 1 0.6%
Canada 6 3.8%
Congo 1 0.6%
Colombia 5 3.2%
Spain 1 0.6%
Britain 3 1.9%
Ghana 2 1.3%
Greece 1 0.6%
Hong Kong 8 5.1%
Indonesia 57 36.3%
Japan 2 1.3%
Kenya 3 1.9%
Korea 1 0.6%
Kuwait 1 0.6%
Morocco 1 0.6%
Mexico 13 8.3%
Netherlands 1 0.6%
Peru 1 0.6%
Philippines 12 7.6%
Portugal 2 1.3%
Russia 1 0.6%
Saudi Arabia 1 0.6%
Solomon Islands 1 0.6%
Togo 1 0.6%
Thailand 2 1.3%
Tonga 2 1.3%
Turkey 1 0.6%
Ukraine 1 0.6%
Venezuela 1 0.6%
Vietnam 2 1.3%
Unknown 1 0.6%

Total Latin America 22 14.0%
Total 157 100.0%

Source: CITES Trade Database, Fish and Wildlife Service

Last year, Mexico accounted for only 8.3 percent of seizures, and no other Latin American country accounted for more than 1 percent. It's important to give credit where credit is due, and the United States has been successful in cracking down on Latin American smuggling as part of its broader efforts to combat trafficking from that region. Several high-profile arrests, such as the arrest last spring of a Spanish veterinarian who collaborated with Colombian drug cartels to smuggle heroin inside puppies into the United States, may have made a dent.

However, the pace of illegal immigration following President Trump's election almost certainly played a role in the decline of Latin American animal smuggling.

2017 includes the initial months of the Trump presidency, when levels of illegal border crossings fell drastically, to as low as 10,000 monthly apprehensions, on fears that Trump would tighten security at the border. Those numbers have since rebounded in 2018 as the "Trump deterrent effect" has seemingly worn off, perhaps because his tough campaign rhetoric was not matched by equally tough policies as president.

However, smuggling from other parts of the world has evidently expanded. Indonesia was once again the worst offender, this year accounting for a whopping 36.3 percent of all seizures. Indonesia largely ships endangered coral to the United States, accounting for approximately half of all seizures:


Figure 2. Seizures of Coral vs. Non-Coral Animals by FWS, 1982-2017



Source: CITES Trade Database, Fish and Wildlife Service

As such, the 2017 figures seem almost like a game of "whack-a-mole". As Latin American smuggling dropped, smuggling rebounded from the rest of the world.

The END Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016 — What About Latin America?

In 2016, Congress passed legislation intended to crack down on the practice of animal smuggling. The bill, entitled the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt Wildlife Trafficking Act of 2016, set out a list of goals for 17 federal departments to fight traffickers. These included stronger enforcement, reducing demand for illegally traded wildlife, and building international cooperation. The bill also included a list of "focus countries", or countries that are "major sources of wildlife trafficking products or their derivatives, major transit ports of wildlife trafficking products or their derivatives, or major consumers of wildlife trafficking products."

The countries included in 2017 were:

  • Bangladesh
  • Brazil
  • Burma
  • Cambodia
  • Cameroon
  • China
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Gabon
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Kenya
  • Laos
  • Madagascar
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Mozambique
  • Nigeria
  • Philippines
  • Republic of the Congo
  • South Africa
  • Tanzania
  • Thailand
  • Togo
  • Uganda
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Vietnam

Just two of the countries included are in Latin America: Mexico and Brazil. African countries account for approximately half of the list. In 2018, the Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking — which is co-chaired by the secretary of State, the secretary of the Interior, and the attorney general — determined "that there was no justification for revising the list of Focus Countries in 2018".

On one hand, given the one-year drop in Latin American animal smuggling, this list may reflect a shift in focus to smugglers outside the Western Hemisphere, as crackdowns on Latin American smugglers have already had an effect. On the other hand, I am concerned that shifting focus away from Latin America at a time when illegal immigration is once again rising is a serious strategic error.

As the number of family units arrested by the Border Patrol crossing our southern border reaches record highs due to loopholes in our asylum laws, there is growing risk that animal smugglers will return to exploiting those same migrant routes as in 2016 and earlier.

It will be nearly another year before the 2018 CITES data becomes available, but when it does, it will be important to see whether there is once again an uptick in Latin American animal smuggling.

The "Trump deterrent effect" has evidently worn off with regard to illegal immigration across the southern border. Only time will tell if that same deterrent effect also has worn off for Latin American animal smuggling.