Wildlife trafficking campaign launches at Hartsfield-Jackson

With wildlife trafficking growing into one of the world’s largest illegal trades, the federal government is partnering with a nonprofit and Hollywood celebrities to increase awareness among consumers who might unwittingly bring prohibited items into the United States.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nonprofit WildAid and actor Michael Cudlitz of The Walking Dead this week announced a national campaign against wildlife trafficking, which they say is an industry worth $10 billion to $20 billion annually.

“I want to live in a world where there’s still elephants and rhinoceroses,” Cudlitz said, calling ivory poaching “brutal.”

The wildlife service inspected more than 180,000 wildlife-related shipments into the United States in 2015, according to officials at a news conference at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The world’s busiest airport is one of the largest ports for wildlife products and hunting and fishing trophies, said Luis Santiago, special agent-in-charge in the law enforcement office for the agency’s Southeast region.

But, Santiago said, “We cannot simply arrest our way out of this.”

“It’s equally vital to tackle the consumer demand” by persuading consumers not to purchase wildlife products that may be illegal, he said. “If demand exists, someone will try to supply it.”

Among the many items to avoid buying and bringing back to the United States are ivory jewelry, carvings or figurines; tortoiseshell jewelry or curios; sea turtle shells or leather items; tiger, jaguar and leopard fur.

The trade “is often run by dangerous criminal syndicates,” said the airport’s general manager, Roosevelt Council.

Wildlife trafficking is seen as lucrative and lower risk than other illicit trades such as drugs, arms and human trafficking, according to Santiago. He said the growing scale of wildlife trafficking has had a “devastating effect” on wildlife.

One focus of the campaign is the elephant ivory trade, which organizers say has caused the savanna elephant population to drop by nearly one-third between 2007 and 2014 in 15 nations. Rhinos, tigers, lions and sea turtle populations are also in decline due to poaching, they say.

Cudlitz is one of WildAid’s “celebrity ambassadors.” They also include his Walking Dead co-star Danai Gurira and other actors. The nonprofit uses billboards and public service announcements in its campaigns.

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