I used to think that hippos were like elephants, protected from slaughter and plunder by humans. Before, I thought the United States had little to do with hippos. And I thought it would be pretty hard to pick up a good pair of hippo skin boots for less than $1,000.
I was wrong on all three counts.
While China has a high reputation for buying and selling exotic and endangered animals – especially after two years of reports of a virus that likely jumped from animals to humans in that country – states States actually play a huge role in the international pet trade. Between 1998 and 2018, we were the number one importer of endangered animal products in the world. And hippos are no exception. According to data from the organization that regulates and tracks the legal trade in endangered species, the United States is often the largest market for hippo parts — yes, as for body parts.
Thousands of pieces of hippopotamus skin, teeth, bones and bodies are imported into this country each year. The situation has deteriorated so badly that last month the Humane Society of the United States, two of its affiliated organizations and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to add hippos to the species list. protected under the Endangered Species Act. (The USFW must respond to the petition by June 22.) There are no wild hippos in the United States, but American shopping habits affect their fate.
If this sounds like an absolutely bizarre set of facts, you’re not alone. I was surprised to learn of the role of the United States in the hippopotamus parts trade and sought to understand how Americans could legally import so much – and Why. What I found were not only answers to these questions, but also a broader understanding of how we protect endangered species. Even though a hippo’s body parts are less desirable than those of other exotic species, it is still in demand, killed, and sold because it is less rare.
Hippos aren’t wilted flowers, fading delicately when humans pick them. On the contrary, said Rebecca Lewison, director of the Institute for Ecological Management and Monitoring at San Diego State University, the direct conflict between humans and hippos is often the reverse – hippos are the killers. . “It’s like the wolves can team up and get revenge,” she said.
This aggression makes hippos different from some of the world’s other charismatic megafauna, as do human perceptions about the quality of their body parts. Hippos have curved, rough teeth covered in grooves. They have thick, tough skin that bears the scars of past battles. They naturally lend themselves neither to the ivory trade nor to interior decoration. Instead, their biggest threat is the slow loss of habitat to humans competing for the same streams and banks, Lewison said.
This habitat loss has earned hippos endangered species status under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (commonly referred to as CITES), a treaty and the organization that helps regulate and monitor the legal trade in listed animals. But while animal numbers are trending down globally, hippos may be plentiful in their current habitats. A pest, even. “In any area, if I said to people, ‘We’re worried about the hippos’, they’d say, ‘Ma’am, you’re crazy. Have you looked behind you? said Lewison.
This is the strange position of the hippopotamus as an endangered species. He is not loved at home. Its ivory is considered unattractive and difficult to carve, its skin rough and old-fashioned, said Crawford Allan, head of wildlife crime at the World Wildlife Fund. Unlike elephants or tigers, there is no massive wave of international demand that sends poachers in search of supplies.
And yet, some people still don’t have enough. Under CITES, endangered species can still be bought and sold legally. With a high-risk animal like most elephants, this sale can only occur under very specific circumstances – such as an animal for breeding or a specimen for science. But hippos are listed under a different classification for endangered species but not endangered endangered. With hippos safe from the immediate threat of extinction, all you need to buy and sell their parts is documentation at one end proving that exporting the animal product will not harm the species, and documentation on the other end proving the import arrived legally. . And a lot of hippo coins are bought and sold.
Figures tracked by CITES as part of its regulatory powers show that between 2015 and 2019 – the most recent years for which we have good data – hippo exporting countries reported shipping 5,169 hippo leather products. hippopotamus, 4,184 hippopotamus skins (plus 3,675 other pieces of skin). ), 2,516 hippo hunting trophies and more than 11,500 teeth. These are just the largest categories of legal trade; many other parts are also exported.
In recent years, the bulk of all these parties have headed to the United States. That’s why Tanya Sanerib, international legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity, is pushing for the hippo to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. This would limit imports of hippopotamus parts to this country, and while it would not eliminate the hippo trade, it would significantly reduce the demand for legal hippo parts.
In four of the five years of CITES data we reviewed, exporting countries indicated that the United States was the destination for more than 50% of their hippo exports. Listing hippos under the Endangered Species Act would also make it easier for U.S. authorities to identify and seize illegally traded hippo parts. This strategy – restricting trade in the country where demand is greatest – is essentially the same one that the World Wildlife Fund attributes to the drastic reduction in the global trade in African elephant ivory. Once by far the largest importer of ivory in the world, China banned the trade in elephant ivory in early 2018, lowering demand there and contributing to a global reduction in elephant poaching.
CITES data does not reflect illegal trade, Sanerib said. But legal trade helps drive demand, which also affects illegal markets. And what hippo parts do Americans buy in these legal markets? Skin, especially. Hippopotamus hide, skin and skin pieces accounted for 71% of the specimens exporting countries reported sending to us. Allan suspected that at least some of this ended up in the trade in exotic boots. “Some people like to have a different pair of boots for a different day of the week, and they like a different type of leather,” he told me. Hippopotamus boots aren’t the prettiest things, he told me. They’re dark and scarred – “robust” is how he described it. But if you get a different pair of exotic boots every Christmas, the hippo might just go on a shelf next to some alligator, stingray or bass leather boots.
While researching hippo products before our interview, Allan had inadvertently told his search engine cookies that he was looking for exotic shoes himself. While I was talking to him, he went to the FiveThirtyEight website and was presented with an algorithmic ad… for hippo boots. “El Dorado Hippo Chocolate Boots for Men for $760,” he said. “And you compare that to $1,460 men’s stallion alligator boots or $280 sea bass leather boots. So, you know, it’s kind of mid-range in value .”
Experts have also told me that much of the hippo skin used in the United States is probably not even marketed as anything special. Endangered animals find their way into the fashion supply chain by accident, said Monique Sosnowski, a graduate criminal justice student at the City University of New York who studies the endangered wildlife trade in the world. fashion industry. This is because of a lack of oversight when products move from one country to another and to a third party. Export and import figures rarely match exactly in CITES data, and even things that are counted correctly are not always sold to customers under a blinking sign marked “HIPPO”. Something could end up being mislabeled – accidentally or deliberately – at many different stages of the process, from the animal’s back to the human closet.
Wallets and small leather goods are an example of where this can happen. Mexico has a large leatherworking industry, Allan told me. This is the country where raw hides of all kinds will often go to be tanned, processed and turned into usable products. In fact, according to Mexico’s export data, 76% of its hippo leather products were sent to the United States. wallet.
But if hippo parts are really considered so inferior to those of other exotic animals, why do they continue to be sold? It’s mostly because the hippos are there and they’re handy, Sanerib said. It is easier to trade hippos than to trade elephants. Hippos aren’t perfect, but they are available. Even when other things aren’t.
CORRECTION (May 2, 2022, 11:30 a.m.): This article has been updated to correct the misspelling of Crawford Allan’s last name.