Just outside Denver in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, a beige warehouse stands on the site of a former chemical weapons facility. The building looks unremarkable, but inside it is the largest, most mind-numbing collection ever assembled of wild animals killed to make furniture, coats, upholstery, handbags, carved figurines, and mounted trophy heads.
It’s called the National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repository, but you could think of it instead as the “international museum of wildlife trafficking”—a grim testament to the business of slaughter for profit.
Within its 16,000-square-foot (1,486 square meters) confines are 1.5 million specimens, mostly products made from some of the world’s most critically endangered mammals and reptiles—tigers, rhinos, sea turtles, crocodiles, elephants. Row upon row of metal shelves hold everything from intricately crafted ivory statuettes to cobra-skin boots in children’s sizes. An entire row of shelves 50 feet long and 10 feet high is dedicated to the hides and mounted heads of big cats—cheetahs, tigers, jaguars, margays, ocelots, leopards.
There’s no other place like it in the country, and there may be no other place that rivals its scale in the world.
The repository is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for enforcing federal laws that protect fish, wildlife, migratory birds, and their natural habitats around the country.
The service is also tasked with assuring that the U.S. complies with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the treaty that regulates commerce of wildlife to ensure the survival of threatened species. It is largely a result of U.S. efforts to enforce the treaty—and to maintain transparency around those efforts—that trafficked specimens end up here.
Everything in the repository has been seized during customs searches at U.S. ports of entry or while being trafficked across state lines. The stated purpose of the warehouse is to receive, inventory, and legally dispose of confiscated wildlife property to ensure “100 percent accountability.”
Personnel at the facility are also responsible for developing educational programs about the wildlife trade, endangered species, and conservation laws. Some of the forfeited items are donated to schools and nonprofit organizations to help raise awareness of the scope of the calamity.
“Some humans are capable of driving a species to extinction out of sheer greed,” says Steve Oberholtzer, the service’s special agent in charge of the repository as well as of law enforcement operations in an eight-state region across the Rocky Mountains and High Plains. “Wherever there’s money to be made, there are those who will break the rules to make it.”
Each specimen—this zebra-skin divan, that polar bear rug, those bags containing thousands of dried sea horses—arrives here after the case that led to its confiscation has been adjudicated.
Despite the staggering haul on display, says repository supervisor Coleen Schaefer with a sigh, “This is just the tip of the iceberg of what comes into the country. But it gives you a sense of the scale of the illegal wildlife trade.”
New specimens show up daily. Recently, a large wooden crate arrived containing the head of a black rhinoceros, its horn intact. Details of the case behind it are sketchy. For Schaefer, that rhino trophy amounts to evidence of a powerful threat—not only to creatures of the wild but also to the rule of law.
“Environmental crimes used to be mostly crimes of opportunity, but now they’re highly structured, the perpetrators well armed and well organized,” she says. “People are making millions of dollars off endangered species. It’s not just conservationists who need to be concerned. This is a global security issue.”
In recognition of the emerging threat posed by wildlife traffickers, the Fish and Wildlife Service has posted agents in five countries overseas, three in Africa. “The extent of the poaching is so vast,” Oberholtzer says, “it’s having a destabilizing effect on entire regions.”
Scott Wallace, a regular contributor to National Geographic, is the author of The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes. Follow him on his website and on Twitter.