Donny pushes his miniscule frame up against the forbidding wall of his sleek wooden cage, extending his front right leg in an attempt to make contact with my camera lens. He's only about the size of a silver dollar, but he and his fellow captive Spur-Thighed Tortoise friends represent a giant obstacle in the worldwide fight against illegal wildlife trafficking.
Here in the storied souks of Marrakech, a cornucopia of illicit animal products display prominently in the stalls of their unconcerned vendors. That cheetah skin hanging above the copper bowls? It's an object of trade to them, no more alarming than the tiny brass teapots sitting in it's shadow.
As a native Californian, illegal wildlife trafficking is about as removed from my daily reality as the conflict in Syria or exploitation of the labor force in developing nations. People sign petitions and post strongly worded statuses condemning that trigger happy dentist who shot Cecil the Lion, but many of us have never actually held an ivory pendant or been confronted with the opportunity to buy a gorilla palm ashtray.
The epidemic of exotic wildlife trafficking is fertilized in oppressive economic climates, where education is marginalized and infrastructure is lacking. No one can tell an illiterate teenager who lives in a dirt hovel that the cheetah cubs he's slinging for $200 a pop are bad business for the world at large. The front line is here, in the medina, where camera toting tourists with deep pockets are seized by the allure of exoticism.
That sense of power and awe they feel when laying eyes upon the ivory inset of a centuries old saber? Don't suppose for a second that it's worth the cost of endangering a species, or in the worst cases, annihilating them.
I keep the memory of Donny, my little turtle friend, alive in the digital annals of my hard drive. Hopefully he stays off the curve of consumer trends for the future of this market; after all, hand made carpets and stained glass lanterns add so much more ambiance to a room than turtle shells do.