Carnegie museum director is speaking out against illegal wildlife trafficking

Pittsburgh may be no center of illegal wildlife trafficking, what with its lack of rhinos slaughtered for their horns and elephants poached for their ivory tusks, but it has one of the world’s most active spokesmen on the issue.

Eric Dorfman, director for the past year of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, is leader of a working group that has focused on the wildlife trafficking issue for the International Council of Museums Committee for Museums and Collections of Natural History. He was principal author of a white paper — the committee’s authoritative stance on the subject — presented on the topic this month at the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums conference in Mexico.

“It’s not too far to say that this is one of the biggest issues facing natural history museums … an issue we have an ethical responsibility to help with,” Mr. Dorfman said in an interview last week.

While zoos are more directly connected to the live animal trade in which valuable and endangered species are illegally killed or sold, he said museums worldwide have related issues involving some of their prized exhibits. A rash of thefts at European museums in recent years targeted rhinoceros displays to remove their horns, which are valued and sold on the black market from cultural beliefs supporting their use in medicine or as aphrodisiacs.

The Carnegie replaced its own rhino display’s horn with a fiberglass one some time ago, Mr. Dorfman said, and he’s satisfied that all of the museum’s exhibits are maintained with high security. Such security precautions are not as rigorous elsewhere, however, and he said the international committee he chairs is doing all it can to raise awareness among both museums and the public.

“Internationally, a lot of museums are not yet valuing their collections,” he said. “They’re good at valuing them scientifically, but less good at thinking about their value on the black market.”

Mr. Dorfman’s advocacy on the issue began before coming to Pittsburgh. He was named to head the international committee during his prior stint as director of the Whanganui Regional Museum in New Zealand. He then became chairman of the working group the committee created to focus on wildlife trafficking.

The role Pittsburgh and the Carnegie can have on the issue was brought home to him, he said, when U.S. government officials sought the help of Carnegie paleontologist Matt Lamanna in identifying a feathered dinosaur fossil that had been smuggled out of China. An arrest was made in Florida, and the fossil is temporarily on exhibit at the Carnegie as a sign of gratitude from the Chinese government.

Pittsburghers can help on the issue by paying attention to the origins of some of the pets they purchase — particularly birds and reptiles — and rarer foods they eat, Mr. Dorfman urged. Animals on other continents are captured or killed for illegal export to the United States as either pets or exotic dishes, he said. Whether they’re purchasing a gecko or parrot or ordering caviar, he said, people should be willing to ask questions of those supplying them because such items may have been transported illegally.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if some percentage of illegal wildlife trade products does end up in Pittsburgh. It’s not what you would call mainstream, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Mr. Dorfman said.

Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255.

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