Taking Care of Confiscated Animals: A CITES Solution?

For some wild animals, getting rescued from traffickers is just the start of another ordeal.

Nobody really knows precisely how many live wild animals are seized from poachers and smugglers around the world each year. The number, though, is easily in the millions. Nor does anyone really know what becomes of all of these animals.

For the most part, “disposal” of confiscated wild animals (yes “disposal” is the current, internationally accepted term) is a matter of individual national laws or agency policies. One country may opt to put seized parrots in a responsible and professionally run wildlife rescue center. Another may deposit them in any zoo willing to take them. Yet another may turn around and sell them at auction. Some countries will summarily euthanize the birds, regardless of their health. And some avoid the problem altogether by simply ignoring illegal trade—even acknowledging they won’t seize animals held illegally if they don’t have a proper place to put them.

Clearly, there is no consistency of policy or action at the international level. But it is also increasingly clear that illegal international trade is among the primary drivers of species endangerment and the motivation for enormous cruelty to animals.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is presently trying to address the problem—or at least to define its scope and magnitude. In recent months, the CITES secretariat in Geneva called upon the treaty’s 183 member countries to provide information concerning how many live animals they seize, the species, and what they do with them after they are confiscated. That information is now with the secretariat, which is analyzing the data. Public reports regarding conclusions and recommendations are expected soon.

For the moment, however, there are several glaringly obvious priorities:

Government wildlife law enforcement agencies should be held to at least the same animal welfare standards currently required of legal animal traders.

Government licensing agencies, under CITES, must obligate animal traders in their country to take adequate care of the live animals they are trading. Traders must be required to ensure that “any living specimen will be so prepared and shipped as to minimize the risk of injury, damage to health or cruel treatment” of the animals being traded.

But no such conditions apply to government agencies that seize live animals from traffickers. Granted, most government wildlife officers are attentive to the care of animals in their custody. But not all of them are. There have been cases of abuse, incompetence, and neglect.

Government officers must be held to at least the same standards that businesses must meet. This is especially applicable to confiscated animals, who were recently in the possession of criminals unlikely to have been attentive to their welfare. Legal traders work under a system that involves multiple monitors—CITES inspections, veterinary inspections, airline controls, etc. They know they are being watched, so they must make some effort to comply with animal care standards. Smugglers, on the other hand, notoriously abuse animals. They cram them into suitcases. They use every imaginable disguise. Sometimes they drug the animals and/or tape their mouths shut to keep them quiet. Often, the animals are wrapped with duct tape, or stuffed in socks, or bound with cords, so they won’t wiggle around during transit.

The animals are already traumatized, and there is dire need for the inspectors to start applying very high welfare standards immediately. Unfortunately, there is no international norm that requires this. Many countries have commendable standards, but not all. CITES is the mechanism to create and apply a uniform standard of care for seized animals worldwide.

An international network of CITES-credentialed wildlife rescue centers and sanctuaries should exist.

Wildlife law enforcement agencies in nearly all developed countries have ready access to domestic networks of rescue centers and sanctuaries. So when US Customs and Border Protection officers intercepted an American citizen trying to enter the United States at 1:30 a.m. with a Bengal tiger cub, they quickly placed the seized animal in the hands of competent care. Similarly, when New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officers seized an eight-week-old arctic fox pup being offered for sale on Craig’s List, the officers quickly located a sanctuary with a credentialed wildlife rehabilitator, and placed the pup in good hands. Dutch officers at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol seized 15 sungazer lizards smuggled out of Africa in August, and placed these animals with a competent caretaker. (Sungazers look like little dragons. Due in large part to a fascination with the dragons that populate the pages and pixels of The Hobbit, Game of Thrones, and other works of fantasy, sungazers are now smuggled in large numbers.)

But what happened to the four lion cubs seized in Pakistan on August 13, 2017? Or the 10,000+ pangolins seized every year across Africa and southern Asia? Or the thousands upon thousands of iguanas, songbirds, turtles, capuchin monkeys, and other animals seized by authorities in some of the most impoverished and remote locations around the world?

If people who care about animals want government agencies to be responsible and seize wildlife that is kept or trafficked illegally, there must be corollary acknowledgement of a need for an efficient and effective network of rescue centers and sanctuaries that have the infrastructure, professional training, and compassion to provide care for those animals. Because illegal trade in wildlife has globalized, it is important that such networks also have an international perspective, global standards of care, and global cooperation for the rescue and placement of confiscated wildlife.

CITES is perhaps the best organization to coordinate such an effort. Nearly all countries of the world are members of CITES, and each member country has a national governmental agency responsible for CITES affairs. The involvement of governmental agencies is important because this is linked to law enforcement as well as to legal considerations such as confiscation and establishment of licensing criteria.

CITES already has a mechanism for regulating and monitoring businesses that breed endangered species for commercial profit. Go to the CITES website and browse through the “National CITES Authorities.” Pick any country—the United States, for example. Under the US information page there’s a tab for “CITES Registers.” Inside that, there’s a sub-tab for “Captive Breeding Operations.” Click on that and you’ll find dozens of commercial operations authorized to breed endangered species for commercial export. Most of the American operations are selling captive-bred falcons. Click on Thailand, and you’ll find a list of saltwater crocodile breeders. Over in the Philippines, you’ll find cockatoo breeders. A South African is breeding cheetahs and many African grey parrots. In Mauritius, they have operations breeding radiated tortoises.

Before being listed on the various country pages, each of these businesses had to have demonstrated compliance with various CITES-required technical criteria, such as verification of legal origin of the breeding animals and verification that the facility has achieved second generation (f2) offspring. An inspection office in another country can thus simply and quickly check if an import of falcons from America originated in an authorized breeding facility.

If it’s so easy to do this for businesses that trade in animals, why can’t something similar be done for rescue centers and sanctuaries that care for confiscated animals? CITES could set up a system for accrediting these facilities based on uniform criteria that would assure everyone worldwide that they meet basic, agreed-upon standards. The accredited rescue centers and sanctuaries could then be listed on the CITES website, just as approved businesses are. A cross-referencing system could list various species. A click on a particular species would then lead to a list of facilities worldwide that are accredited to receive and care for animals of that species.

If CITES can apply computer technology to help businesses engaged in legal wildlife trade, it should be able to apply that same technology to help officers seeking to place seized wild animals.

There should be an international agreement on who “owns” confiscated wild animals.

In most cases, when a country confiscates contraband (e.g., explosives, drugs), that contraband belongs to the government of the confiscating country. The same holds true when otherwise legal items (e.g., jewelry, electronics) are confiscated because someone tried to smuggle them to avoid paying customs duties.

Under CITES, however, there is a most curious situation in which ownership rights are determined by whether an animal is alive or dead. According to Article 8 of the treaty, a country that seizes a contraband live animal must offer to return that animal to the country such animal came from. This suggests that the country of origin retains some rights to that animal.

But the provision does not apply to “parts and derivatives”—all the furs, skins, tusks, horns, and other anatomical parts—that may be seized. Thus, if officials in Australia seize a live Indian pangolin, they must contact India and offer to return the animal. But if they seize scales or even an entire carcass, there is no obligation to notify and return.

This seeming inconsistency should be reconsidered and addressed. Certainly there are welfare considerations in returning live animals to their homeland. But there are also welfare considerations to be addressed when grappling with all those furs, skins, tusks, and horns. Each of those items was once part of a living animal; if illegal trade in these items is not effectively controlled, horrendous killings of many wild animals will continue to supply this vile trade.

This is particularly true when a government sells confiscated wildlife items. Several countries, including the United States, have legally authorized themselves to sell confiscated wildlife (live or dead). In the United States, the law is 50 CFR 23.78, which identifies “sale of certain Appendix II or III specimens” as an acceptable “disposal option.”

Some people consider legal sale of a confiscated wild animal to be a type of “legal laundering.” One day the animal is illegal contraband, seized from a smuggler. The next day, by government fiat, it becomes a legitimate item of sale. Usually, government sales are auctions, and items offered are sold at prices substantially below market values. Such bargain-basement prices tend to enhance profits and stimulate the wildlife trade.

The combination of legal and illegal trade (for most species, it doesn’t make much difference. It’s the net number extracted from natural habitats that counts) already imposes an enormous strain on biological diversity and species conservation. Lumping the two together and selling confiscated animals in legal trade is a type of cruelty to nature.

Several other issues exist. One is compilation and analysis of data from confiscations: What species were involved? Where did the consignment come from? What smuggling techniques were used to avoid detection? Who benefited financially from the smuggling?

Improving the compilation of this data—on an ongoing basis with a constant analysis—would help identify the “hotspots” from which the animals are poached and why those particular hotspots are being targeted by poachers. Analysis can also identify smuggling routes and thus help improve customs intelligence and interceptions. Questioning of arrested smugglers can reveal information about higher-level criminals who are profiting financially from the illegal exploitation of wildlife. Good analysis can help suppress this criminal trade and alleviate some of the cruelty that it imposes.

There should also be a better assessment of the conservation considerations. Certainly there is sympathy for the notion of restoring confiscated parrots to their native tropical habitat. But what are the consequences? There almost always are health risks with animals that have been held by traffickers—and detecting exotic sicknesses in seized animals can be a very expensive process. Should authorities risk the health of a large population of wild animals by releasing seized individuals back into their native habitats? Perhaps it is wiser to maintain rescued animals in a humane sanctuary for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps it would be wise to suggest long-term confinement be imposed upon the traffickers, as well.