The National Museum of Organized Crime & Law Enforcement (known as The Mob Museum) in Las Vegas opened several new displays last week, including one on the international trade in poached wildlife.
I volunteer at the museum during winter months and I found the new exhibit fascinating.
You might ask what poaching has to do with organized crime? Actually, quite a bit, I learned.
The exhibit points out that criminal syndicates worldwide profit from the sale of poached wildlife. In countries where many exotic animals and plants are found, such as India and Vietnam, poachers and traffickers take advantage of weak laws and weaker officials to kill and take at will. These actions result in tremendous profit for the unscrupulous and put these creatures in danger of depletion.
Ever hear of a pangolin? I had not. The Mob Museum exhibit says it is the most heavily poached animal in the world.
It looks like an anteater with scales. But it is not in the anteater family. It’s about the size of a housecat and is prized in various parts of Asia for both its meat (considered a delicacy) and its scales. Traffickers grind the scales into a powder that is used as a medicine.
Other animals that fall into the “most poached” category are (not surprising) African elephants. The Mob Museum exhibit notes thousands are poached annually, despite a 1989 ban.
About 1,000 rhinos are also poached in South Africa annually. It’s their horns that are valued. The horns are ground into powder and used as a traditional Asian medicine. Vietnam is the key distribution and transit point for rhino horns, I learned.
A lady who was checking out the wildlife exhibit with me said she was a zookeeper from the East Coast. She said rhino horns are getting harder to obtain, so poachers are starting to kill giraffes in Africa. They substitute ground giraffe horns (actually, just cartilage) for rhino horns in order to fool the buyers.
Tigers are also poached and trafficked in India, with thousands taken annually for their pelts and bones. China is the biggest market for tiger products, I learned. Their skins are turned into high-end clothing and accessories. The bones are ground and used as medicine.
Tigers are rarely shot since poachers do not want to damage the skins. The animals are generally trapped near watering holes and wildlife trails so the skins remain intact.
The last most-poached wildlife is not an animal, but rosewood.
Items made of rosewood are prized throughout Asia as status symbols. The wood is illegally logged throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. Attempts to protect rosewood forests in these areas have resulted in hundreds of human deaths as rangers battle poachers.
Also in The Mob Museum exhibit is a display of exotic items confiscated from poachers and traffickers. They are on lend from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s repository in Colorado, where there are millions of such items in storage. They include a python belt, American alligator purse, a carved whale tooth, a mounted Russian bear claw, and a carved hippo tusk.
It’s amazing to me to see what the people who buy and display these items consider a “value.”
Chances are they didn’t consider where the items came from, what illegal actions were involved to secure them, or who profited from selling them.