House of horrors: inside the US wildlife repository photo essay

    Photographer Matthew Staver and writer Oliver Milman visited the US National Property Repository, where illegal products, from stuffed tigers to worked ivory, are stored and counted

    If the US had a national house of horrors, it would probably be the federal government compound that lies on the fringes of Denver, Colorado, incongruously set within a wildlife reserve where bison languorously dawdle against a backdrop of the snow-crowned Rockies.

    los National Wildlife Property Repository, operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), is a warehouse of the macabre. Its a Noahs ark of protected deceased biodiversity that smugglers attempted to get into the US before being caught by FWS staff at airports and ports.


    Shelves bow under the weight of elephant tusks, leopard cubs in shocked repose, crocodile skin boots and quack medicines made from mushed up parts of turtles and bears.

    Perched on top of the shelving units are taxidermy tigers. Theres a bag filled with 40,000 sea horses. Towards the back of the warehouse there are two rhino heads in a crate.


    There are about 1.5m items at the repository, with approximately 200 specimens arriving each week for storage and education purposes.

    This is just a thimbleful, just one speck of what comes into one port in one year, and it doesnt even include live animals imported to be pets, says Coleen Schaefer, the repositorys supervisor.


    • Coleen Schaefer holds some of the confiscated elephant ivory. Various tiger-related contraband is displayed below.

    Schaefer spent three years as an inspection agent attempting to stem the tide at Los Angeles port, targeting traffickers who cram snakes into Pringles cans or strap 20 exotic birds to their torso, before deciding she couldnt face the daily heartbreak of euthanising animals any more.

    This is more depressing though, Schaefer says, glancing at a lamp thats been made from a zebras leg.


    A consumer nation


    New York City and Los Angeles are the main entry points for illegal wildlife products into the US. If they evade inspection, the potions end up in certain alternative medicine outlets, the stuffed animals in curio shops, and the severed heads of megafauna on the walls of people who want to add a touch of flamboyance to the ranch.


    The live animals invariably end up in the hands of collectors or those who wish to hold domestic safaris the number of tigers in Texas, held for myriad purposes, ahora rivals that of the wild population in Asia.




    • Foiled smuggling plots: a contraband boot covered to disguise its actual makeup, and a covered piece of ivory.

    The US is a big player in all this, you cant get around that, Schaefer says. We are a consumer nation. We arent the source country of rhinos, or tigers or elephants, but they are here and they wouldnt be unless someone was importing them.

    Lee mas: