FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When Soldiers are deployed, many take an opportunity to purchase items like rugs, pottery, scarves and jewelry from local market vendors. What they may not realize is some items for sale are made from endangered wild-life.
Animal skin rugs, fur coats, knives with bone handles, ivory products and dried lizards are some of the illegal items for sale at many markets.
“In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, wildlife products often come from animals that are threatened or endangered,” said Dr. Heidi Krester, who serves as the livelihoods and conservation coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s North America Program. “If you have loved ones who are going overseas, please don’t ask for products made from wildlife, even though it’s very tempting because they’re less expensive over there.”
While some animal products sold in Iraq and Afghanistan are not made from endangered spe-cies, Krester recommends not buying any animal products. A species may not be on an international endangered list, but they may need to be placed on a local endangered list.
“Because of so many years of war, we don’t even know how the populations of wild animals in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are faring,” Krester said, noting that some people might be trying to add to a collection that a grandfather may have brought back from World War II.
“It was a different time then. They didn’t have the rules and regulations governing threatened or endangered wildlife,” she continued. “In particular, the biggest issue in Afghanistan we really want to avoid is the purchase of any furs that have spots on them, because those furs are likely from wild cats … and all are protected by international and U.S. laws as well as military regulations.”
Krester added that many people may find it surprising to know that Afghanistan is home to nine species of endangered wild cats alone: snow leopards, Persian leopards, leopard cats, Pallas cats, caracal cats, Eurasian lynxes, jungle cats, wildcats and sand cats. At least four of those wild cats also live in Iraq.
The WCS began noticing illegal items being sold at markets on military bases near Kabul, Afghan-istan, in 2007. The following year, WCS surveyed Soldiers at Fort Drum and found that more than 40 percent had purchased or witnessed the sale of illegal wildlife items.
WCS, a global conservation organization, and the Department of Defense’s Legacy Program have a unique partnership that aims at decreasing the demand for wildlife products among U.S. military personnel stationed abroad through education efforts.
Krester said another goal of the partnership is to educate Soldiers on U.S., international and military laws and regulations regarding the purchase and transport of illegal items. Any items made from endangered wildlife will be confiscated by customs agents.
“Soldiers need to know they don’t want to buy those items because they’ll lose their money, get in trouble with customs agents, and it’s bad for the animals,” Krester said.
WCS also works at educating the local communities. The organization helped to create Afghanistan’s first national park " Band-e-Amir " in 2009. The park, which covers 222 square miles, is located on the Hazarajat Plateau in the Hindu Kush Mountains.
The organization also has been educating local people in the Wakhan Corridor in the Himalayan Mountains, an area that is home to the endangered snow leopard. WCS helped train local nationals to become wildlife rangers in an effort to reduce poaching in the area, and every school in the area teaches environmental conservation, according to the organization’s website.
“Our organization is working in Afghanistan to establish national parks where local people and " once peace is returned " international visitors can come and enjoy Afghanistan’s beautiful natural resources,” Krester said.
Illegal wildlife trade is a supply-and-demand system " the greater the demand, the more animals will be killed, Krester said. In many cases, the same organizations that trade wildlife animals also are involved in drug, ammunition and human trafficking. In addition, these organized crime groups are often sources of income for terrorist groups.
“Wildlife flies under the radar because it doesn’t seem as big of a crime, but they’re making big-time money and it’s all going into the same organized crime organizations,” Krester said. “However, the transport of many types of wildlife products across international borders is illegal.”
The DoD Legacy Program was established in 1990 in an effort to preserve natural and cultural heritage to safeguard them for future generations, according to the Legacy Program website.
Krester is asking Family Members to refrain from asking their Soldiers to buy all items that may have come from threatened or endangered wildlife.
For more information about the WCS and its ongoing projects to educate military members, visit www.wcswildlifetrade.org/military.