Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, May 3, 2023


Tanya Sanerib, (206) 379-7363,

Wildlife Data: Massive U.S. Mammal Imports Threaten Biodiversity

U.S. Fuels Pathogen Risk With Escalating Raccoon Dog Fur Demand

WASHINGTON— The United States imported more than 250 million mammal parts for commercial use between 2016 and 2020, according to data obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, there was a steady and sizeable annual increase in U.S. trade in products made from mammals, according to an analysis of the data by the Center for Biological Diversity. Research shows that the United States is a top wildlife importer globally and has been increasingly trading in wildlife since 2000.

“Exploitation is a major driver of wildlife extinctions, and this data shows that the United States is a major exploiter. We import a whole lot of unnecessary mammal products,” said Tanya Sanerib, international legal director at the Center. “President Biden, Congress and the international community are all ignoring that we’re exploiting species to oblivion and the United States is a major offender. We need to stop buying wildlife or we’ll continue to unravel the fabric of life on this planet.”

Traded products include fur for fashion and décor, leather for shoes, and bones and horns for pets, medicines and collection. For example, in 2020 alone the United States imported more than 4 million mink hair products for commercial use — primarily for cosmetics (fake eyelashes and brushes) or fishing lures — and more than 2 million pounds of kangaroo meat for pets and people.

Commercial Mammal Trade

Table 1: * # We chose to remove three entries of import data from our analysis. Two 2018 entries were removed that showed 10 billion mammals imported in two shipments to a company that deals in insects; we believe the entries may have been mislabeled. We also removed one entry of 2019 data indicating 5 billion milliliters of elk were imported, as it likely represents milliliters of blood or other samples that went to a company for testing and not elk meat or products.

Exploitation of mammals fuels biodiversity loss but also risks pathogen spillover. For example, raccoon dogs are suspected to be the intermediary species in the spillover of the virus that caused SARS in humans in 2002 to 2004. The species is also potentially linked to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. While live trade in raccoon dogs to the United States was largely banned in 1983 because of the species’ invasive potential and rabies risk, their fur is still in high demand in the United States.

The LEMIS data shows increasing U.S. consumption of raccoon dog fur for fashion until 2020, when the pandemic wreaked havoc on global trade. U.S. demand for wildlife imports risks disease spillover in raccoon dog exporting countries, including China, Finland, Poland and Hungary.

Raccoon Dog Fur

Table 2: Raccoon dog product imports to the United States.

“This isn’t the 1600s, and we don’t need fur to survive. Luxury fashion isn’t worth risking pathogen spillover,” said Sanerib. “Raccoon dogs and other furbearing species like civets and mink are notorious for transmitting diseases to people. As COVID taught us, it doesn’t matter where these diseases emerge in our global society — we’re all still at risk. It’s time to work globally to curtail perilous supply chains, like those for fur, or we’ll keep reliving 2020.”

In 2021 the Center and allies petitioned two federal agencies to curtail bird and mammal trade because of the pathogen spillover risks this trade poses.

The LEMIS data — generated by the government’s Law Enforcement Management and Information System — includes basic information about U.S. wildlife imports and exports. The data documents the millions of plants and animals that enter and leave the United States each year for hunting trophies, the exotic pet trade, medicinal products, fashion, décor and more. The database is a unique and invaluable source of information for conservationists, scientists and members of the media.

The data was released to the Center following a lawsuit filed on its behalf by Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic in the fall of 2020. The data has been heavily redacted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so actual trade could be far greater.

The Fish and Wildlife Service freely released the LEMIS data to the public for decades until it stopped doing so in 2014, prompting two U.S. courts to order the disclosure of earlier LEMIS data. The Service is now releasing post-2015 data that is heavily redacted, limiting the ability of wildlife scientists, conservationists and public health officials to understand what is being imported and from where and evaluate risks. The data is available here.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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