Obviously the border is a big deal in this election. Trump promises a HUGE wall, while the Democrats brand all his followers as racists. Apparently the idea that many people merely want legal immigration is too much of a nuance in this brawl of an election cycle, and The Donald doesn’t acknowledge that a 15-foot wall will result in 17-foot ladders and more tunnels.
What is missing in this human-centered focus on the border and on walls are the animals—the ones we usually neglect to consider.
So here is a main reason the wall should not be built: It blocks the wildlife corridor between the U.S. and Mexico and Central America. Two prominent wildlife organizations, the Wildlands Project and Defenders of Wildlife, warn that any solid barrier will block corridors needed by many species (some listed as endangered), and animals identified include jaguars, bears, and wolves, along with multiple species of amphibians. Many of these animals need access to large territories to meet their needs and cannot afford to be trapped on either side of a wall.
The wildlife agencies recommend non-physical barriers, such as lasers, aerial surveillance, and motion detectors to secure border safety and emphasis on legal immigration through specific entry ports.
There is another border issue not being discussed and one that also requires border surveillance and law enforcement—wildlife trafficking. In 2015 Defenders of Wildlife deemed the United States is one of the largest buyers of smuggled wildlife and animal products, with a market estimated at $2 billion.
One of the saddest discoveries of the wildlife trade is that up to 20 percent of the species who have been identified are on the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) Appendix I. Some of the species being trafficked are actually threatened with extinction, and include queen conch, caimans, crocodiles, and iguanas.
The wildlife smugglers frequently follow the routes and means used to smuggle drugs as part of the border trade that burgeoned under NAFTA. Mexico is a major transfer point for exotic and endangered animals not only from Mexico and Central and South America but from around the world. One Malaysian dealer actually brought in Komodo dragons, the biggest lizard in the world and only found on three Indonesian islands. They also transported a nearly extinct Madagascan plowshare tortoise. Such rare species may sell for as much as $30,000 to $50,000 on the black market. One couple was apprehended for smuggling 900 turtle eggs, and a man was found with a collection of rare Garibaldi fish hidden in a tank he had welded to his car’s gas tank.
Other animals involved include wild boars, puma cubs, white Siberian tigers, Tibetan antelope, pythons, crocodiles, and Gila monsters. The animals are purchased for “private” zoos and menageries, and the big cats, such as tiger cubs, are sent to Mexico from dealers here. Drug lords in Mexico have private collections of the exotics as trophy pets and may also smuggle drugs in wildlife cargo.
Some of the trade is in raw products, i.e., meat, scales, shells, to be used as food, decorations, or ingredients for aphrodisiacs. Shark fins were one of the largest trade items by volume, with over 1.5 million pounds documented, a number which represents enormous shark mortality.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of the wildlife trade is that approximately 90 percent of the animals, already rare, die making the trip across the border. Some animals are dosed with Valium to make them calmer. In another case, a smuggler served tequila to his shipment of iguanas. The alcohol reacted with an enzyme in the lizards’ blood and proved lethal. There is also the danger of transporting diseases from one part of the world to another, and traffickers obviously do not quarantine the animal they are carrying or have any idea of their possible medical conditions. For example some animals, including parrots, are bought from poor farmers who have access to the animals’ habitats but have no knowledge of their health status.
Analyses for over a decade have revealed that virtually no species is safe from being trafficked from South and Central America and Mexico over the southern border. The demand from North America fuels the trade, but our government has not taken the problem seriously enough to commit the funds needed to stop it. The Office of Law Enforcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approximately 130 wildlife inspectors throughout the whole country. Furthermore, law enforcement does not treat the issue seriously. Sentences do not fit the crime, jail time is uncommon, and any fines, if assessed, are written off as part of doing business.
The trade in wildlife that is causing suffering and death of so many animals, as well as contributing to the extinction of endangered species, needs more attention, stricter enforcement, and severe punishment. The consequences should apply not only to the criminals who are supplying living exotic animals and their body parts but to those who create the demand, as well.
Making the southern border a death trap for animals should not be acceptable to the people of this country.
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