Every year Americans legally import millions of wild animals and wildlife products. Sometimes they’re live animals destined for zoos. Sometimes they’re trophies from hunts or intended for scientific purposes. But overwhelmingly, they’re for the commercial trade—coats, shoes, wallets, jewelry, and exotic pets. Some are bred in captivity. Some are taken from the wild. Here are some of the animals imported in the greatest numbers in recent years.
Pythons: Reese Witherspoon was slammed in 2011 when paparazzi photographed her carrying a $4,000 python-skin Chloé bag. In California, it’s been illegal to sell python-skin products since 1970 (but not to own them). So while they’re off the market in California, the rest of the U.S. still has quite an appetite for the snakes. Some 3.7 million pythons and python items were imported from 2005 through 2014, according to a National Geographic analysis of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data. Reticulated pythons and Burmese pythons are the most popular species for skin products, and ball pythons were the most popular species imported live. Rarer species, such as Ramsay’s python, which is endangered, were imported live in smaller numbers.
American black bears: Americans import a lot of black bears—almost all are trophies from hunts in Canada. More than 72,000 black bear trophies (meaning the whole bodies) were imported during the past decade, as well as tens of thousands of teeth, claws, skins, and skulls.
Macaques: The crab-eating macaque, found throughout Southeast Asia, is one of the most popular species for biomedical research, especially for drug development and substance abuse research. Some countries have established breeding facilities to supply these animals to the research industry, but there are some concerns that they’re are actually getting macaques from the wild, contributing to their rapidly declining populations.
African elephants: No surprise here, Americans want elephant products. The vast majority are skin and leather items. From 2005 through 2014, more than 12,600 whole elephant skins were imported, plus nearly 22,000 skin pieces, and 6,000 small elephant-skin products such as watchbands and wallets. There was plenty of ivory too: more than 30,000 ivory pieces, including carvings and jewelry, and 2,500 tusks.
Sharks: Nearly half the 5.2 million shark teeth imported during the past decade were from mako sharks. Their long, thin teeth are sold by wholesalers in bulk to make into necklaces and other jewelry. Also popular are teeth from bull sharks, sand tiger sharks, and even great whites, whose populations are under pressure from the curio trade. And then there are shark fins. Most of that trade is under the table. Legally, though, Americans imported about 4,200 fins during the past decade.
Caimans and crocs: They come in as shoes, belts, and briefcases. Meat, skulls, and whole-body trophies from hunts. Teeth, tails, and oil. Also live crocs and their cousins, the caimans. The import of 7.4 million of these animals and their products during the past decade makes them among the most popular of all. The vast majority were common caimans, an animal that likely numbers in the millions and is not of conservation concern.
But another top species was the Nile crocodile, which was hunted to near extinction by the 1960s. It’s numbers have rebounded, but the commercial trade in wild-caught Nile crocs remains prohibited or tightly regulated in most countries. Most imported Nile crocodile products come from farmed animals in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Style icon Jane Birkin, the namesake of one of the most coveted handbag lines, by Hermès, requested that her name be removed from the label last year when a PETA investigation revealed serious animal welfare concerns at Zimbabwe and Texas crocodile farms that supply the fashion house.
The animals were allegedly living in overcrowded, dirty ponds, lacking proper medical care and diets, and being killed inhumanely. A sheriff’s investigation into the Texas farm confirmed most of PETA’s findings, though a grand jury cleared the farm’s employees, the Houston Press reported. Hermès called it an “isolated situation” and apparently dealt with it to Birkin’s satisfaction: In September 2015, she withdrew her request to have her name removed.
Vicuñas: It was the coat that took down President Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams. The silky smooth hair of the vicuña, a llama-like animal that lives only high in the Andes, is like cashmere to the umpteenth power. Today an off-the-rack vicuña coat can cost $21,000. So when Adams accepted one from his friend, billionaire textile manufacturer Bernard Goldfine, who just happened to be under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, it was seen as a bribe. Adams resigned in 1958.
Like any animal with a product that’s highly coveted, the vicuña was nearly poached to extinction. With intensive management, their populations recovered, and the wool trade re-opened. But once again they face threats from poaching and the illegal trade. Legally, Americans imported some 4,800 pieces of vicuña clothing and more than 2,000 square yards (1,700 square meters) of vicuña cloth during the past ten years.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to email@example.com.
Follow Rachael Bale on Twitter.