Bad Traffic: The Illegal Trade in Wild Animals

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Remember earlier this year, when smuggler Sonny Dong was caught with 14 birds stuffed in his pants at LAX? It seemed like a bizarre incident — something so off the wall, it had to be completely out of the ordinary. Surprisingly, it's not.

Trafficking usually brings to mind three things — drugs, guns and humans smuggled into forced servitude. But according to the Smithsonian, there's another illicit trade on that shortlist, one that falls behind only drug and weapon trafficking in terms of value.  Dong's shenanigans give it away: The illicit trade in wildlife brings in $10 billion annually, according to the U.S. State Department, as people across the world hoard birds in toilet paper tubes or stash drugged reptiles in their luggage.

Birds, which can be culinary delicacies or exotic pets, bear the brunt of this smuggling: 2 to 5 million wild birds are traded illegally every year, a number also calculated by the State Department. Of course most countries don't condone the wild bird trade. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has regulated the careless swapping of plants and animals since 1973. The United States has even strengthened regulations through legislation like the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992.

But in much of Central and South America, strong laws aren't enough. Tremendous biodiversity combined with poverty makes smuggling too tempting. Smithsonian writer Charles Bergman reports from Ecuador's Amazon Basin on the heartbreaking site of a felled tree — poachers' preferred method for stealing nestlings — and the forlorn parents who stay near the site even after the chicks are dead or gone.

Obviously, such wild bird populations can only last so long if they're stripped of their ability to rear young. Here's hoping biodiversity-based tourism will ultimately outweigh the money to be made in poaching wild animals.

Image credit: Young scarlet macaws are snatched from their nests because they make beautiful and intelligent pets. (Nacivet/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images)

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