ATLANTA - Boots, jewelry and décor made from protected wildlife arrive in U.S. ports daily, but when live animals come into the country illegally, federal enforcement officers must find homes for the animals.
In the southeast, they often call the Georgia Aquarium for help.
It’s a partnership U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent in Charge Luis Santiago told Channel 2 is essential to conserve wildlife.
“This resource, if abused, can disappear,” he said of internationally protected wildlife.
Santiago said the volume of animals and animal products coming into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport keeps his team busy. He said putting rare, confiscated animals in zoos and aquariums serves as a conservation tool for outreach and education.
Another educational tool is the National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repository outside of Denver, Colorado. It’s home to more than a million seized artifacts.
“Everything from your tropical fish, your coral, your leather products for boots, it is all wildlife that is regulated and commercial importers are bringing it into the country to make money,” said Coleen Shaefer, who runs the repository.
She gave Channel 2 a tour of the facility. The massive warehouse yields shelves and shelves of animal products.
Shaefer described a black-market trade for decor, clothing, even medicinal products made from protected animals.
“Just like Rolex watches, whenever you have a legal market you’re going to have an illegal market.”
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There is a market for living protected wildlife as well. The Georgia Aquarium let Channel 2 Action News cameras behind the scenes to see 19 freshwater stingrays from the Amazon River in South America.
“When they have to confiscate an illegally imported animal, or an animal that doesn’t have proper paperwork, they often reach out to us to help home the animal while they work out the situation,” explained Megan Olhasso, a curator at the Georgia Aquarium.
Olhasso explained the stingrays they currently have were confiscated from the Miami Airport. The aquarium is looking for permanent housing, but will keep the animals until then.
She said the aquarium is usually called in to care for freshwater fish, coral, even invertebrates when they’re seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspectors.
According to Santiago, smugglers are creative when it comes to sneaking animals into the country, putting live animals on their body, even in secret luggage compartments. He said smuggling cases are being prosecuted more now than ever.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigations yield jail time for criminals and millions of dollars in fines and penalties.
Law enforcement said the biggest deterrent is U.S. shoppers being aware and informed about what they buy.
“I don’t think a lot of Americans really understand that they have the power to either put their money where they’re going to benefit a species or put it somewhere where you’re actually going to be part of the problem,” Shaefer said.
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