ONE MORNING IN JULY 2012, Asmita Parelkar waited, adjusting her large-format Toyo Field Camera, in the storage lab at the office of the United States Fish & Wildlife Service in Long Island, New York. It was Parelkar’s second day working on her Illegal Wildlife Trade photo series, which documents items confiscated by the agency that originated outside the United States. Eventually, a young inspector came in and escorted Parelkar into another room to see the latest arrivals. Inside, on a steel counter, was a cloudy bag of dead ball pythons. They had been shipped from the rainforests of Togo, and suffocated somewhere between West Africa and the US east coast. Had they survived and not been confiscated, the snakes could have been sold for large sums as exotic pets.
Though ball pythons can be imported into the United States legally, both the illegal import of sanctioned wildlife by transporters who wish to avoid fees and bureaucratic hassles and the trafficking of prohibited animals are fairly common. The illicit trade in wildlife is growing globally, with China its largest market and the United States a close second. Rare and exotic animals and plants, both living and dead, can fetch exorbitant amounts. In 2011, Global Financial Integrity, an American non-profit research and advocacy organisation, reported that the trade was worth between $7.8 billion and $10 billion per year. This commerce involves middlemen in numerous countries and at several stages, from procurement and storage to transportation and retail, making it difficult to enforce existing laws.
Parelkar was a student at the International Center of Photography in New York City when the report came out, and was already interested in documenting the relationship between humans and animals. Earlier, she had completed a project on zoos, titled Giraffe Behind The Door: Life in Captivity. With a new project in mind, Parelkar started surfing Craigslist and other forums where people discussed how to acquire and care for snakes, birds and other exotic pets. She reached out to some pet owners and traders in the hope of photographing them with their animals, but found them reluctant to be documented. The project seemed impossible, until Parelkar came upon reports of exotic animals seized by the FWS.