Inside a Macabre Colorado Warehouse Full of Rhino Heads, Leopard Skins, and Other Illegal Animal Goods

Feeding a parking meter is already distasteful; it’s hard to imagine someone wanting to reach inside a toad’s leathery corpse just to fish out a quarter. Yet, that skin-crawling coin purse is among 1.3 million illegal animal skins, skeletons, and other tasteless curiosities held at the National Wildlife Property Repository, a 22,000-square-foot governmental warehouse just north of Denver.

Britta Jaschinski spent four days last September photographing its macabre inventory of stuffed toucans, tiger pelts, and other animal products for her series Crimes. “It’s got shelves up to the ceiling stacked with confiscated wildlife items,” Jaschinski says. “Anything you can dream of that’s traded is there.”

The US has the world’s second-biggest illegal wildlife market after China, with a special penchant for animals like coral, pythons and seahorses. To fight this booming $23 billion market, the Office of Law Enforcement inspects more than 180,000 wildlife shipments at airports, border crossings and ocean ports each year. Smugglers use all kinds of tricks to evade detection: labeling monkey blood as human; covering caiman boots in suede; even strapping live turtles to their legs. But government agents still seize thousands of products—many made from poached, threatened or endangered animals—trafficked without permits.

About 15 percent of these illicit goods wind up at the repository in Commerce City, Colorado, to be used for education and research. The staff cleans, barcodes, and seals each object in a plastic bag before filing it away on metal shelves with similar objects. “There’s a quite strong smell in there—a bit like death, to be honest,” Jaschinski says. “Death and chemicals.” Though that might just be the elephant toenail someone fashioned into a business card holder.

Jaschinski has been interested in wildlife conservation since she was a kid in Bremen, Germany scooping beetles out of her sandbox so as not to accidentally squash them. Since 2012, she’s been photographing the wildlife trade in China, visiting a bile bear sanctuary, tiger farm, and wildlife market. Curiosity about where else the stuff ended up led her to the Colorado warehouse in Colorado. “What they have is worth millions,” she says. “Billions.”

She spent four days photographing some 200 objects. The staff pulled several items she requested ahead of time—highly trafficked pangolin scales, tiger bone, and particularly hideous novelties, like an ashtray made out of a rhinoceros foot. She also walked the warehouse’s aisles each morning with an employee, who loaded objects that interested her into a shopping cart. Jaschinski photographed each item with a Nikon D810 against a painted linen backdrop lit by two strobes—a method she repeated at a smaller repository she visited, housed in London’s Heathrow Airport.

It’s not exactly fun to look through these heartbreaking, post-mortem portraits of lizards, giraffes, rhinos, lynxes, and hummingbirds; whatever color they possess has been further desaturated in Photoshop, underscoring the loss of life they represent. “I wanted everything to feel as if the light had been drained out of it,” Jaschinski says. Nonetheless, they’re an important lesson in the cost of superstition, greed, and really, really bad taste.

Jaschinski is raising funds on Kickstarter for Photographers Against Wildlife Crime, a book featuring the work of 20 wildlife photographers that will include images from Crimes.

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