A man was caught in New Zealand trying to board a plane with 44 exotic lizards in his underwear. He was suspected to be working with a black market in Europe and hoped to make over $2,000 per lizard. John Matter, associate professor of biology, explains why animals are meant to remain in their habitats and what should be done to those who traffic them elsewhere.
What are trafficked animals typically used for?
All kinds of things. You may get folks who just want to have an interesting exotic pet. The basic motive for trafficking is the cash reward. Not only is it live animals, its animal parts. There is a very active underground black-market for all kinds of exotic animal parts. They have cultural significances in some societal circles.
Why are the numbers of animals being trafficked increasing even as the laws are becoming more focused on the problem?
The US has had some pretty strict laws and other countries are starting to get on board with trying to negate animal trafficking activity. If you look at it, the traffickers have the advantage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only has 250 enforcement agents (nationwide) to deal with animal trafficking. That is a lot of territory to cover with 250 agents.
In addition, we have not seen significant penalty for those who are caught. Very few of them do hard time; only to be out there doing it again. Paying a fine, to them, is just the cost of business.
What is the most environmentally devastating aspect of animal trafficking?
The most prized animals for trafficking are those things that are rare.
So, when you remove animals from wild populations that are inherently low in number, you’re doing damage. If you start to remove individuals with populations that are limited in size, limited in number and are at the top of the ecological food chain, you’re going to do significant damage all the way throughout the ecosystem.
How would you go about stopping animal trafficking?
You can say we need more laws but they only work for people who follow the laws. It doesn’t matter if we have laws on the books because folks are going to break them. We need to really penalize wildlife offenders.
When you think about “what do people care about, in our society and our culture…” I think we have put a lot more emphasis on illegal immigration. Is that a lesser offensive than wildlife trafficking? I don’t know. That’s something that people have to decide.
-Erin Kreischer ’13, Juniata Online Journalist