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Negotiations over multibillion-dollar trade deals mostly focus on issues like manufacturing tariffs. So you might be surprised to hear about wildlife trafficking as part of a major trade pact. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, the U.S. is hoping an Asia-Pacific deal will help slow the poaching of animals like elephants, tigers and rhinos.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: If you want a sharp dose of reality about the scale of wildlife trafficking, just come here, to the National Eagle and Wildlife Repository on the outskirts of Denver. The cavernous building sits in the middle of a national reserve.
COLEEN SCHAEFER: We have a 16,000 square foot warehouse that's completely full. We have approximately 1.5 million items in there.
NORTHAM: Coleen Schaefer heads up the repository. There's everything from taxidermied polar bears to tiny seahorses turned into keychains. An area devoted to elephants is framed by a pair of enormous tusks.
NORTHAM: You can see just right there. Those are elephant feet.
SCHAEFER: Yeah, elephant feet. People either make those into trash cans or foot stools.
NORTHAM: In 2013, more than 20,000 elephants were slaughtered. Last year, the repository crushed six tons of confiscated ivory. The repository is packed with poached wildlife used for fashion and medicines. Schaefer says some of the animals are just used as trophies.
SCHAEFER: This is probably the saddest item we have. This is a tiger fetus that was carved out of its mother and then stuffed, placed on a shelf.
NORTHAM: I'm just walking down just one row here, and I'm seeing shelf after shelf of stuffed heads and the skins of cheetahs, leopards, jaguars, lions, snow leopards and tigers. And when you look around this enormous warehouse, which is just stuffed to the rafters with endangered species, it gives you a good indication about the challenge in trying to curb wildlife trafficking.
The Obama administration is now trying a new approach to tackle wildlife trafficking by incorporating it into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, known as the TPP. That's a massive, multilateral trade agreement currently being negotiated among a dozen Asia-Pacific nations. Michael Froman, the U.S. trade representative, says if it passes, countries found to be involved in illegal wildlife trafficking could face trade sanctions.
MICHAEL FROMAN: What we're doing through the Trans-Pacific Partnership is, first of all, making sure that environmental issues are central to the agreement, including on dealing with things like wildlife trafficking, and then making them fully enforceable, just like any other provision of the trade agreement.
NORTHAM: The U.S. is also trying to make it part of a trade deal with the European Union. But Leigh Henry, senior policy advisor for the World Wildlife Fund, says the Asia-Pacific trade deal is key because much of the demand for the endangered wildlife comes from Asian countries negotiating the TPP.
LEIGH HENRY: Vietnam is huge. They are the primary consumer of rhino horn that's driving this 3,000 percent increase in rhino poaching in South Africa. Malaysia is a huge transit route for illegal wildlife trade.
NORTHAM: Henry says when it comes to fighting wildlife, international law has no teeth. She hopes the TPP and the potential of trade sanctions will change that. But Henry knows tradition trumps all in many Asian nations, where endangered wildlife is used to make aphrodisiacs or cures for cancer and stomach ailments. Henry says what's really feeding the demand is Asia's growing middle class - people with disposable incomes who want to display their wealth and success.
HENRY: If you can go out and party all night and turn around the next morning and provide your friends and colleagues with rhino horn to combat your hangover, it shows success. It shows that you have the money to spend on this incredibly expensive luxury item.
NORTHAM: Rhino horns reportedly fetch more than $30,000 a pound - worth more than their weight in gold. Enforcement is difficult in areas where poverty and corruption are common. The U.S. is trying to better coordinate with international law enforcement agencies and hopes to beef up customs and border patrols and the number of fish and wildlife inspectors if the TPP trade agreement is signed. There are thousands of packages of every shape and size arriving here in the international mailroom at New York's JFK airport. Naimah Aziz, an inspector with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says illegal wildlife is often bought online and shipped by mail. There's so much mail coming in on any given day. It's easy to skip detection.
NAIMAH AZIZ: I mean, there's a lot of packages, and they move through here really fast. Sometimes mail comes in the morning, and it's out in the afternoon. You got to be fast. You got to be when it comes in, and you have to be on it.
NORTHAM: Aziz one of only 11 Fish and Wildlife inspectors monitoring JFK, LaGuardia Airport, and Port Elizabeth, where cargo ships dock. She says there are certain things to look for. A package that's leaking could be caviar or a freshly skinned animal - or suspicious paperwork or labels. Today, Aziz spots a package heading to Austin, Texas.
NORTHAM: Where did it come in from?
AZIZ: It came from South Africa - (reading paper) gift carpet.
NORTHAM: The paperwork says it's a carpet. But that's not what Aziz finds when she opens package.
AZIZ: Yeah, there's about one, two, three, four - there's five zebra skins here. No one really needs five zebra skins.
NORTHAM: As she surveys the stacks of parcels and packages surrounding her, Aziz says any help slowing the tide of illegal wildlife would be welcome, even if it comes from a most unlikely of places - an Asia-Pacific trade deal. Jackie Northam, NPR News.
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