Customs agents at JFK airport made an unusual discovery last June: Three dozen finches straightjacketed in hair curlers. The tiny birds are used in singing contests by Guyanese men in New York, spawning a niche illicit trade that extends back to the Caribbean. The finches are trapped in the wild and drugged with rum before shipping. Hundreds have been intercepted over the last few years.
A vast array of poached products courses through New York, a wildlife crime hub rivaled by few cities on earth. Officials have discovered rhino horn, shark fin, and pieces of pangolin, an armored anteater that’s become the most trafficked mammal on earth. And then there are species less typically associated with poaching: desiccated seahorses, elephant tusks disguised as wood carvings, live turtles labeled “snacks” and concealed beneath noodle packets.
The busts indicate the sheer breadth of the global wildlife black market, governed by organized crime, worth billions of dollars annually, and in the news recently for driving the spread of diseases like the coronavirus. But they also tell a story particular to New York.
“This is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and wildlife crime reflects that diversity,” said Rachel Nuwer, a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and author of Poached: Inside the Dark World of Wildlife Trafficking. “This isn’t something confined to black markets in China or game parks in Africa. It’s happening in our own backyard.”
According to some estimates, the United States is the world’s second-biggest consumer of illegal wildlife products after China, although the trade’s secretive nature makes it difficult to quantify. Last year the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued fines of nearly $7 million for wildlife crime nationally, conducting some 10,000 investigations. As a major cargo and transit hub, New York processes a large portion of this traffic. But there’s another reason too: demand within the city.
A person can, with little difficulty, walk through Manhattan’s Chinatown and view all manner of poached products. There are vats of dried sea cucumbers, procured illegally and often at great risk by divers across the tropics, and of abalone, a giant marine snail relentlessly trafficked from South Africa. In the outer boroughs, groups from West Africa covertly trade in bushmeat, derived from wild game like primates and antelope. And it’s not just immigrants creating demand for wildlife goods: ivory smuggling in the city has long been propelled, in Nuwer’s words, by “Upper East Side types who collect antiques.”
There are also exotic pets, a quintessentially American compulsion. In 2003, police rescued a 400-pound tiger named Ming from an apartment in Harlem after his owner, a cab driver named Antoine Yates, showed up at an emergency room with bites on his arm and leg. Perhaps only amid the strangeness of New York could neighbors turn a blind eye to someone’s pet tiger. (Ming died in October at the Ohio sanctuary he’d been relocated to; he was 19 years old.)
“The rarer something is, the more valuable it becomes,” explained Crawford Allan, the senior director of TRAFFIC, an organization that monitors the illegal wildlife trade. Smuggling arises from a fundamental human impulse, he added: people coveting “rare and beautiful things.”
As a Scotsman based in Washington, DC, Allan said he could personally relate to another driver of the market: yearning for the taste of home. “Whether it’s me missing haggis or a pregnant West African woman wanting primate meat,” he said, referring to the traditional belief that bushmeat has medicinal properties, “it amounts to much the same thing.”
Notwithstanding its diversity, and perhaps in part because of it, New York is disorientating for the newcomer — huge, loud and impossibly fast. Culture and tradition, which often include wildlife products, can become anchors in a city that renders people anonymous.
“The ways that we think about and relate to animals and nature are shaped by our ethnic and cultural heritage,” said Colin Jerolmack, an environmental sociologist at New York University. “When immigrants move to an unfamiliar place, reconstructing these practices — whether through consumption, breeding or pet-keeping — can be a significant way of staying connected.”
In the public parks of Richmond Hill, a remote suburb of Queens, Guyanese men gather on weekends with finches in cages, placing bets on how quickly they sing. On a recent Sunday, a man named Shaun stood on the pavement with his bird, newly purchased. “When you hear that,” he said as the finch whistled beside him, “you just think of home.”