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A cabinet of illegal curiosities

The US National Wildlife Property Repository reveals its macabre collection of goods seized from the illegal trade in endangered species.

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  1. The US repository's stockpile of seized ivory was deliberately destroyed this week, and included carved tusks from both adult and juvenile elephants.

    Alexandra Witze

  2. After 18 years on the job, warehouse supervisor Bernadette Atencio says that she is still shocked by the wildlife items that enter its doors. The ‘big cat’ aisle includes cheetahs, ocelots and snow leopards, among others.

    Alexandra Witze

  3. Fashion items, such as hats incorporating feathers from at-risk bird species, are often trafficked through airports in the New York city area, say US law-enforcement officials.

    Alexandra Witze

  4. Boots made of the skin of endangered crocodiles and other threatened species constitute illegal wildlife products.

    Alexandra Witze

  5. Tigers are hunted not only for their skins — often sold as stuffed trophies, shown here — but also for body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine. The US wildlife repository houses an entire ‘medicinal’ aisle with products such as tiger tonic, snake wine and rhino horn pills.

    Alexandra Witze

  6. Shells of sea turtles, once a commonly seized item, are showing up less and less at the facility — perhaps because of a successful push to educate the public about the risks facing such turtles.

    Alexandra Witze

  7. Fine-art objects, such as these carved figures, were not spared from the ivory cache destruction.

    Alexandra Witze

  8. After crushing, the ivory fragments will be given to zoos and aquariums as an educational tool, to show that the pulverized pieces have no market value.

    Alexandra Witze

On 14 November, outside Denver, Colorado, representatives of the US Fish and Wildlife Service fed six tonnes of ivory — including tusks, figurines and other precious items — into the maw of a rock-crushing machine. The aim was to send a message to wildlife traffickers that elephant poaching will not be tolerated.

It is unclear whether this symbolic act will help to slow the slaughter of African elephants for their tusks. But US efforts to fight the trade in illegal wildlife items go far beyond the high-profile ivory event, covering a wide range of goods produced from endangered species.

Earlier this week, Nature got a rare glimpse of the National Wildlife Property Repository near Denver, a 1,200-square-metre warehouse where the US Fish and Wildlife Service stores 1.5 million items — most of which were seized by law enforcement when they were brought into the country illegally. It is an eerie place stacked with heads of tigers, bags of seahorses and boots made from crocodile skin.

Warehouse supervisor Bernadette Atencio says that the facility has received more and more tusks from baby elephants in recent years. “That to me is the most heartbreaking,” she says. “Generations and generations of elephants are being lost.”

Not everything gets destroyed: some of the items are donated either to science or to organizations that promote conservation to be used for educational purposes.

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