Wildlife Watch

Dried Seahorses Seized—All Eight Million

In this week’s crime blotter: fish illegally bound for Asia, a massive elephant skull, and 22 tortoises in a bag.

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In 2012, Peruvian authorities seized these dried seahorses. They were bound for Asia, where they're used in traditional medicine.


Four years ago Peruvian authorities seized 16,000 dried seahorses abandoned on a street near an airport in Lima, the nation’s capital. If you think that sounds like a whole lot of fish, think again. This time they confiscated eight million of the little creatures at the Port of Callao in Lima—the nation’s largest seahorse haul.

Discovered on June 7, the seahorses were on a Chinese-flagged ship bound for Asia, according to China NewsAsia, which cited a government statement. Authorities arrested the captain in connection with smuggling the goods, worth nearly $4 million on the black market.

Seahorses are easily recognized by their neck and long-snouted horselike heads. Aside from this oddity, they’re also the only animal in which the males, not females, give birth. When mating, the female deposits her eggs into a pouch on the male’s front-facing side. He fertilizes them and carries them in the pouch until they hatch.

There are more than 40 species of seahorses, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Pacific seahorses, the targets in this latest bust, are the largest, growing up to 12 inches. They’re found in tropical and temperate waters from California’s San Diego down to Peru, where it’s illegal to fish for them. Eleven seahorse species are considered vulnerable or endangered and all are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the body that regulates the commercial wildlife trade.

But that hasn’t stopped people from selling some of them as souvenirs and for use in traditional medicine. In China, they’ve been coveted as a source of potency and virility for 600 years. They’re ground up into a powder and added to rice wine or soup, according to the Taipei Times. An estimated 24 million seahorses are plucked from the wild and traded each year.

In addition to the commercial trade, seahorses have to contend with habitat loss and entrapment in shrimp-trawl nets.

Some other wildlife crime busts, convictions, and investigations around the world announced recently:

BIG BONES: Mexican authorities seized a massive African elephant skull in the car of a man entering the country from Texas, says Breitbart News. The driver declared the skull but authorities say he wasn’t able to provide the proper export permits required by CITES.

TORTOISES IN TOW: Checkpoint officers found a bag filled with 22 Indian star tortoises in a car in Woodlands, a town in northern Singapore, according to Channel NewsAsia. The driver “is now assisting with investigations,” the publication notes. CITES requires a permit to export Indian star tortoises, which are prized for the exotic pet trade.

DOG SLEUTHS: A canine unit in Cape Town, South Africa, helped police nab three suspects accused of “illegal abalone activity,” reports News24. The cops say the three were linked to an abalone processing facility. Poachers now steal about seven million of the South African shellfish a year, up from four million a year in 2008.

PRIZED ROSEWOOD: Authorities in central Cambodia’s Kampong Thom Sandan district confiscated 175 logs of protected rosewood from a plantation, according to the Phnom Penh Post. The owner of the plantation was questioned and then released. Used to make furniture, rosewood is favored for its darkly rich hues, density, and fine grain.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

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