U.S. troops heading to Iraq and Afghanistan will soon be trained to confront a new enemy, the trade in products made from endangered animals.
Designed by a conservation group and backed by $50,000 from the Pentagon, the campaign will teach soldiers to be wary when shopping for clothes, blankets and other items that might be made from endangered or threatened species like the snow leopard, sand cat, and Asiatic black bear.
"Most of these soldiers are between 18 and 26 years of age, and they are not aware," said Heidi Kretser, who heads up the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society's trade education program. "They are looking at cool products to bring home to their families."
The education effort is justified, the group says, by its statistics that show 350 illegally traded wildlife items were confiscated at just three U.S. bases in Afghanistan during spring and summer of 2008.
Typically the problems stem from soldiers unwittingly buying blankets and coats containing the furs of protected species -- which make them illegal to ship or carry into the United States. But that is a lesson the troops often do not learn until the products are paid for -- and then confiscated by customs officers.
The conservation campaign aims to curb such sales through PowerPoint presentations, pocket-sized endangered species cards and other teaching tools that the group plans to complete this spring.
Possession of products containing parts of protected species could lead to more than confiscation, warns McKenzie Johnson, the conservation group's representative in Afghanistan. Soldiers could be prosecuted for smuggling, and a conviction could carry a stiff fine and jail time. So far, however, Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames said he is unaware of such charges being brought against U.S. soldiers.
Though customs officers can prevent a product's shipment, "once the product is sold, the damage is done," Kretser said, noting that money has already gone to vendors and fueled illegal wildlife trade.
So Johnson tries to keep money out of vendors' pockets by educating U.S. military police on bases in Afghanistan to keep illegal wildlife products out of on-base bazaars.
Johnson, whose work is mostly funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, has accompanied military police through inspections of bazaars to point out illegal wildlife products -- often, furs of animals protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or U.S. laws. She also conducts workshops for the military police to teach them to identify the endangered species.
"Two military police from Bagram Air Base flew in to Camp Eggers specifically to train on identifying endangered species, learned the training and then went out to forward operating bases in the south to repeat the training to other soldiers," Johnson said. "U.S. military personnel have been the primary reason for the success of this program."
The conservation group does not have representatives in Iraq, but it hopes to educate soldiers heading there with its new campaign, Kretser said.
In Afghanistan, where the number of U.S. troops is expected to grow, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) said efforts to educate shoppers and keep vendors peddling endangered species out of base bazaars may make a lasting impact. When military police see illegal fur being sold, a vendor is warned not to bring those products to the base, Kretser said, and repeat offenders are banned.
"When WCS staff or military police do regular bazaar inspections, there is a decrease in the number of illicit products offered for sale by vendors," Johnson said. "However, when these efforts slow or stop, vendors immediately bring back these items to sell."
Camp Eggers in Kabul has been particularly consistent in checking for wildlife items, Johnson said. "There have been very few found in bazaar checks during the last year," she said.
Such regular sweeps, she added, "should make a vast difference in reducing the amount of illicit trade in Afghanistan."
Deciphering which animals' pelts are used in blankets and coats is not easy, especially when bits of furs are mixed in a single product, Kretser said.
Sometimes Johnson is brought in to give her expert opinion on whether or not a product runs afoul of CITES or U.S. law.
"I had a group from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who brought me in because the customs officer on Camp Eggers refused to ship items they had purchased in the bazaar," Johnson said. "Most of the items included fur coats purchased at the bazaar on base. Some of the coats were silver fox, which are allowed to go through customs, but one of them contained cat pelts and could not be shipped out the country."
The confusion for many troops arises from the fact that furs are sold at bazaars on base, said Laurie Rush, the cultural resources manager for the Army's Fort Drum in New York.
In recent years Kretser has visited Fort Drum -- two hours from the conservation group's Saranac Lake, N.Y., office -- to teach deploying troops about the issue. It was there that Rush first suggested Kretser ask the Defense Department to fund the training effort.
"If you are a young soldier without this education and you were in a situation where you are in a so-called 'approved' market opportunity," Rush said, "you would assume it is fine to buy everything available."