How U.S. Soldiers Are Fueling the Endangered Species Trade

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Dennis Flaherty

Endangered snow leopards are found throughout Central Asia, and they've become a popular item for the illegal wildlife trade.

You’re a U.S. soldier, abroad on your first deployment in Afghanistan. Like any world traveler, you want to bring a souvenir back home to the family, something they could never get at home. So you visit the local market on base, where Afghan vendors sell carpets, trinkets and clothing. And you pick out something really cool: a white spotted pelt, perfect for a rug. What could possibly be wrong with that purchase?

As it turns out, quite a lot—at least for endangered species. According to a study from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)—an environmental non-profit that runs the Bronx Zoo in New York—a significant number of U.S. soldiers deployed overseas have purchased products made from wildlife. And in many cases, that wildlife is threatened—like the endangered snow leopard of Central Asia, which could have been killed to make that fine white pelt. Most soldiers aren’t knowingly purchasing products made from endangered species, but they are inadvertently supporting that trade, which can have serious consequences for conservation. “The wildlife trade is highly problematic,” says Heidi Kretser, the coordinator of the WCS North America Programs Livelihood. “There needs to be awareness raising in the military.”

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The WCS research began back in 2007 when staff in Afghanistan noticed products made from threatened species being sold on military bases near Kabul. That led to a survey of nearly 400 soldiers at Fort Drum in upstate New York, one of the biggest military bases in the U.S., sending some 80,000 troops a year to Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the conflicts. WCS found that more than 40% of the soldiers surveyed had either purchased wildlife products or had seen a fellow service member buy one. They reported seeing wildlife items for sale one or off bases in 40 countries, with the greatest number by far in Afghanistan—a fact that makes sense, given that the Central Asian country is home to a number of endangered species, including the snow leopard. (The sheer number of U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan played a role in the numbers as well.) “The most popular items were fur coat and rugs,” says Kretser. “And there you’re talking about species that do tend to be threatened.”

The problem isn’t just that U.S. service members are buying wildlife products—it’s that their presence in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq helps create a market for poaching and hunting that might otherwise not exist. American soldiers—and even more so, the contractors and other international personnel who follow in their wake—can bring developed world purchasing power to bear in a developing world. Suddenly an Afghan who  might have no one to sell that snow leopard pelt to—and therefore, no reason to participate in the trade in the first place—suddenly has a ready market with well-off customers. “You can sell a snow leopard pelt for $1000,” says Kretser. “That’s far more than the average Afghan person could make in a year.”

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You can’t blame a poor person for trying to earn that kind of money—which is why it falls to the customers more than anyone else to halt the wildlife trade. There are international and military regulations that prohibit the purchase and transport of products made from endangered wildlife, That’s why Krester and the WCS have been working with the Department of Defense’s Legacy Program on educational courses for personnel who are about to be deployed overseas. The programs underscores the illegality of purchasing endangered wildlife products, as well as the potential health threats that can come with them. (Wildlife—especially primates—are a major source of zoonotic disease, and the international trade can spread those diseases around the world.) The hope is that by educating service members early, they’ll be that much less likely to pick up a wildlife souvenir to take home with them.

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