(AF) The US Military's involvement in wildlife trade in Afghanistan
April 30, 2012, 4:10 pm
Fur, Feathers, Ivory and Bone: The U.S. Military and Endangered Species
By C. J. CHIVERS
Elisha Hubbard/Courtesy of WCS Items confiscated from military personnel at
Bagram Airbase include a wolf pelt, a Eurasian lynx coat and a hat made
from wolf fur.
The links between conflict and contraband are as old as war, and have been
the subject of extensive research. The reasons are easy to grasp, if
sometimes hard to trace. Wars disrupt economies and can create acute
shortages, often while encouraging lawlessness and the breakdown of borders
and institutions. In these circumstances, smugglers are both in demand and
Much of the public conversation about contraband and conflict centers on
either products of high value � Iraqi and Chechen oil, West Africa�s
so-called blood diamonds, the heroin trade extending from Afghanistan�s
poppy fields � or on goods essential to organized violence, including
weapons, ammunition and food.
Now a recent study examines war and contraband from an atypical
perspective: the illicit trade in wildlife products as souvenirs for
Western soldiers. The study, published this year in the journal
Biodiversity and Conservation, sketches market forces that are at once
highly visible and mostly unexplored. The summary of those market forces is
that Western soldiers on deployments have both relatively high salaries and
access to bazaars, and they�ve helped create a niche industry on overseas
bases and outposts for goods made from imperiled species. This is the
souvenir trade with a dark side.
The study, �Wildlife trade products available to U.S. military personnel
serving abroad,� is behind a paywall at the journal�s Web site. But one of
its five authors, Heidi Kretser of the Wildlife Conservation Society,
posted a text-only version last week on the society�s Web site. It recounts
a series of surveys of American soldiers and tours of bazaars on bases in
Afghanistan that point to a robust trade in wildlife products, often
happening in plain sight.
Surveys held in Fort Drum in 2008, for example, found that more than 40
percent of the soldiers had either seen wildlife products bought or had
bought them themselves. Fewer than 12 percent of those surveyed had heard
of the international convention regulating such trade. And tours of Afghan
bazaars on military bases from 2007 to 2009 found myriad products suspected
of being derived from imperiled species, including the pelts of snow
leopards and other endangered cats on hats and garments, or bits of ivory
and bone inlaid on the handles of souvenir knives.
Anyone who has spent time on bases abroad has seen the markets, stocked
with a typical mix of apparently pirated DVDs, crude hookah pipes, rugs,
chess sets, pottery, jewelry and more. In some places Cuban cigars are
common, notwithstanding their status under American law as forbidden for
citizens. Such is the nature of this peculiar demand � dense concentrations
of soldiers and contractors with middle-class Western wages, away from
home, in search of exotic distractions or gifts.
Ms. Kretser has trained soldiers headed overseas. She said that in her many
interactions with the military, she found that most of the illicit wildlife
trade she and her peers documented resulted from ignorance, not ill intent.
Soldiers and their commanders, she said, were usually not aware that the
goods offered on sale on military bases often had roots in illegal hunting,
trapping or trade, and that international law and convention forbids the
items� sale or transfer over international lines.
Elisha Hubbard/Courtesy of WCSA vendor stall full of fur items inside
Bagram Air Base in Kabul.
�The feedback I usually get when I give training is that the soldiers had
never known that this was an issue,� she said.
To help soldiers and their commands understand the issues and the laws, the
society has produced a 19-minute training film, �Caught in the Cross
Hairs,� which they hope the American military will require soldiers to
watch before they deploy. (The film, narrated by the actor Edward Norton,
is online here.) So far, Ms. Kretser said, several units have shown it to
soldiers heading overseas.
It is worth noting that while military bases and outposts have created
fresh demand and even institutionalized trading posts, the trade in illicit
wildlife parts and products is hardly a new phenomenon, or limited to the
buying sprees of soldiers seeking end-of-tour souvenirs. Afghanistan�s
poverty, and international demand for rare wildlife curios, assured that
poaching existed long before the current war, persisted under the Taliban�s
rule and was part of Afghan markets long before the American military
In early 2002, the Times photographer Joao Silva and I briefly scoured
bazaars in and near Jalalabad and Kabul, looking for contraband. We also
looked in on the shops then on Chicken Street, a retail corridor in Kabul
that largely sells to foreigners, to document what was on offer, and what
Afghan vendors might produce if asked to show their finest goods. Over tea
and sweets, we were regaled with snow leopard pelts, and once, the aging
skin of a lion, along with pucks of hashish and firearms � often faked
replicas of old British patterns offered as being torn from a dying British
soldier�s hands in the empire�s last decades. There was no constellation of
American bases back then. The number of Western soldiers was few. Who were
these items offered to? Aid workers, diplomats, journalists, contractors �
a body of ex-pats who remain part of the same demand as soldiers today.
One difference is the sheer size and modern efficiency of the demand. A
paid foreign presence (military and nonmilitary) that easily crests
hundreds of thousands of people a year has created purchasing power of a
much larger order; moreover, access to on-base postal offices mean that
untold quantities of illicit products can be sent home with few hassles and
Ms. Kretser noted that the Pentagon helped pay for the film�s production
and distribution, contributing more than $250,000 to date from the
so-called Legacy Resource Management Program, which seeks to bring the
military into compliance with environmental laws and convention.
Follow C.J. Chivers on Facebook, on Twitter at @cjchivers or on his
personal blog, cjchivers.com, where many posts from At War are supplemented
with more photographs and further information.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]