Smugglers taking toll on region’s fauna


For years, Tony Silva was revered as one of the world’s preeminent bird experts. Bird curator at the Loro Parque wildlife sanctuary in the Canary Islands and a prolific author of books on bird conservation, he was considered a savior of endangered species. But special operations officers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suspected another reality.

They discovered that Silva headed an international band of smugglers that trapped hundreds of endangered birds in the Pantanal region of Brazil, smuggled them through Paraguay, Argentina and Mexico and sold them to wildlife dealers in the United States. By the time, he was sentenced in November 1996 to 82 months in prison, the one-time conservationist legend had smuggled more than $1.3-million worth of vinacious amazons, red-browed amazons and other exotic species. His smuggling may have contributed to the demise of up to 10% of the world’s population of endangered hyacinth macaws, according to prosecutors.

Silva’s behavior came as only a mild shock to those familiar with the estimated $10-billion-a-year wildlife trafficking industry. With huge sums at stake, smugglers have proven capable of anything to get endangered animals onto the black market in the United States, Europe and Japan. They cram animals inside the door panels of cars, stuff them into suitcases and jam them into hollowed out televisions. They dope them and load them into PVC tubes. They conceal them in spare tires. The brutality is such that nine out of 10 animals die, on average, before they reach their intended destinations.

“Much of the illegal animal trade is carried out under the most barbaric conditions,” says Luis Medina, a wildlife detective at DAS, Colombia’s internal security service “The majority die before they reach the pet stores, zoos and laboratories of the world’s developed nations.”

The vast scale of the trade—some 12 million birds, monkeys and reptiles are extracted each year from Brazil alone—has turned once teeming jungles in South America into shells of their vibrant past. Chronicles of jungles flush with macaws and riverbanks alive with row upon row of scaly caimans are fantasy to today’s travelers. The Spix’s Macaw, which once patrolled the gallery forest along the São Francisco River in northern Bahía, is Brazil’s icon of doom. Today, only two individuals survive in the wild and only 30 in captivity.

Trappers have decimated populations of the hyacinth macaw, whose population has dropped from 100,000 in Brazil and Bolivia at mid-century to 3,000 to 5,000 today. And they have savaged the marine otter, which once swam along the rocky coasts from central Peru to southern Argentina. As millions of animals, including some 600,000 primates, are exported annually from South America, wildlife experts are profoundly worried about the region’s patrimony in biodiversity.

They fret especially about the animals’ ecosystems. Thousands of sea turtles are captured each year for their meat and eggs and to make handicraft of their shells. But little is known about the turtles’ behavior off the beaches where they come to nest, or about their interaction with aquatic ecosystems. Hunters trap innumerable parrots and macaws. But those birds’ role as dispersers of tree seeds is also unknown.

“Wildlife species are part of a long chain. We don’t fully understand the interrelationships of species in the tropics,” says Susan Lieberman, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Scientific Authority.

For all the concern, governments so far appear powerless to stop the pillaging. One hundred forty-three nations worldwide, including all the countries in South America, have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which regulates the commercial trade in wildlife. Government and press campaigns thunder against hunting and trapping. Numerous countries, including Colombia, Peru and Brazil, have established special environmental police units.

Legislation also has been stiffened in the region. Bolivia, known as the “wild west” of animal smuggling in the early and mid-1980s, banned the export of endangered animals altogether in the latter part of the decade, putting the brakes on the wholesale theft of tens of thousands of its birds and lizards each year. Brazil has had a similar ban in place since the late 1970s.

But the smugglers have remained creative and persistent; and the relatively timid new measures do little to reduce profits, which rival those of the illegal narcotics and weapons trades. In the last three years, U.S. customs and wildlife authorities arrested a Christian missionary accused of using followers to bring endangered boas from Peru into the United States, saw to the conviction of the owner of a legal reptile import company in Florida that imported 1,500 rare Indonesian and Argentine reptiles, and uncovered a smuggling ring responsible for shipping hundreds of endangered parrots and macaws from Guatemala and Mexico, across the U.S. border and back to other Latin America countries for sale.

Most smugglers, however, don’t get caught. As the trafficking is conducted increasingly by sophisticated criminal gangs ranging from five to 100 people, it is the animal traffickers rather than law enforcement officers who are winning the war.

It begins in places like the Amazon jungles of Colombia, where for years the drug lord Pablo Escobar bought rare birds and snakes for his 1,900-animal private zoo outside Medellín. A representative of an animal-smuggling gang recruits a local Indian or peasant farmer to trap rare parrots or macaws with a live bird as lure and a lasso, or by hacking down the nesting tree. The bird is then transported by truck to a place like Bogotá’s Plaza Bolívar market.

A vast two-story shed of cement and aluminum, the Plaza Bolívar houses hundreds of flower and meat shops. It also has thousands of cages of legally sold cockatoos and canaries sandwiched between aquariums of exotic, but legally sold fish from the Amazon and Chaco rainforests. Everything seems above-board.

But as a foreigner penetrates the cacophony of blaring salsa music and barking vendors, a small man in a black felt hat with a machete dangling from his belt emerges from behind a wall of cages. He produces a brochure with photos of endangered animals.

“I’ve got titi monkeys and lots of parrots stored over there,” he says, pointing out the window to labyrinthine side-streets and alleys. “Tell me what you want.”

The bird may stay, be bought by the foreigner or sold to a hawker of such folk remedies and aphrodisiacs as tortoise eggs, bird feathers and monkey feet. But it also might be exported. In that case, the animal may pass through numerous regional capitals and several countries outside the region, handled by as many as 10 intermediaries before it reaches the streets of a U.S. or European city.

“It’s not uncommon to see animals bounced around various countries of South America, transported to Singapore and then back to Mexico before being sent on to the U.S.,” says Doug McKenna, a law enforcement officer at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The strategy lies largely in shifting animals from place to place to exploit different nations’ application of the CITES treaty.

CITES bans trade in the most endangered animals listed in its Appendix 1. But it allows trade in less vulnerable species in its Appendix 11, provided this will not negatively impact their population. Unfortunately, few countries have the resources for wildlife population studies. They rely instead on export quotas from previous years. The result is disastrous.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, generous export quotas in Argentina turned the country into the region’s major thoroughfare for wild birds from Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil and Peru, with an average of 144,000 birds exported a year. Smugglers falsified documents to make their parrots or macaws appear Argentine, shipped the birds to Buenos Aires and then to overseas markets.

Today, the expensive Argentine peso has ended the country’s status as the ideal export base. But the game remains the same. In 1995, U.S. Fish and Wildlife authorities uncovered a smuggling ring that captured caiman lizards in the Brazilian Amazon, killed them, and then shipped the skins to Suriname where their export is allowed. The skins then traveled to Mexico and overland to the Tony Lama Company’s boot factory in El Paso, Texas, with altered export documents showing the caiman lizards originated in Suriname, rather than Brazil.

By the time authorities conducted their first raid, an estimated 100,000 caiman lizards had been sacrificed for “hornback” cowboy boots at a price of $1,200 a pair.

“The wildlife trade is extremely capricious,” says Claudio Bertonatti, a wildlife analyst at the Argentine Fundación Vida Silvestre. “Traffickers will move their base of operations from one day to the next depending on changing local controls, profit margins and international demand for species. That is why it’s so crucial to synergize efforts and assure uniformity in wildlife legislation.”

But thus far, U.S. consumers haven’t seemed to care. The United States spends an estimated $3 billion each year on illegal reptiles, birds and monkeys. Pet shops and boutiques in Miami, New York and Los Angeles run a booming business in endangered South American animals. Belts, wallets and cowboy boots made from snakes, caimans and tegu lizards sell like wildfire.

Flamboyantly colored, four-foot long macaws are the rage among collectors, who will pay $7,000 for a scarlet macaw that costs $12 in Colombia’s Amazon town of Leticia, and $15,000 for a hyacinth macaw that costs $30 in Brazil’s Belém.

“This is practically a free resource for smugglers that buy the animals for a few dollars and earn profits of several thousand percent in the U.S.,” says Ginette Hemley, vice president of the World Wildlife Fund’s species conservation program.

U.S. authorities are overwhelmed. In 1983, the U.S. Congress passed amendments to the Lacey Act, banning international and interstate transport of endangered species that have been illegally captured. Nine years later it passed the Wild Bird Conservation Act, further restricting trade in protected species. Traffickers now theoretically face sentences of up to five years in jail, forfeiture of property and large fines. But in practice, most smugglers caught on a first offense don’t go to jail, and most smuggling goes undetected.

“There are simply not the resources to enforce this,” says Craig Hoover, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspector who is now senior program officer at the Washington office of TRAFFIC North America, a wildlife watchdog group. “There are only around 80 fish and wildlife inspectors to examine tens of thousands of shipments of wildlife at all the nation’s airports and ports. U.S. customs is not terribly familiar with wildlife. And their priorities are drugs and weapons, not animals.”

The same applies to such European countries as Germany and Britain.

Alternative approaches are being attempted in Latin America, however. In Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil, nurseries for endangered caimans, iguanas and other reptiles have been established with government backing to develop sustainable use of the animals and prevent their extinction in the wild. Under the system, private farmers obtain licenses from the government to capture live adults. They then breed them in captivity and sell the offspring for leather, in the case of caimans, or as pets, in the case of iguanas.

Ideally, the farms are self-sustaining, with no need to catch more wild animals. Moreover, they help repopulate the wilderness by returning a certain percentage of the offspring, usually 5% to 10%, to the jungles each year.

Colombia, which runs 86 farms and has an annual CITES export quota of 600,000 caimans, helps its farmers earn tens of thousands of dollars annually from the business. Skins are exported to Thailand and Singapore for processing and then shipped to China, where they are made into wallets, belts and handbags for export to the United States.

The farms already are credited for taking a good deal of pressure off wild-animal populations.

“If these farms didn’t exist, these species might be headed for extinction, says Ángela Andrade, the director of the ecosystem department at Colombia’s Environment Ministry. “Instead, their populations have remained steady.”

Still, there is no perfect answer. The World Conservation Union estimates that despite the caiman nurseries, worldwide trade in caiman hides was at least 50% greater than the legal output in 1993. Supply and demand rule, just as in the drug trade.

As long as American, Asian and European consumers insist on cheap, reptile-skin handbags on their arms and endangered hyacinth macaws in their gardens, efforts by governments in South America or in the developed world to end the destruction are bound to fail.The trick is not to close borders, many experts say. Instead, it is to raise awareness of disappearing species and ecosystems, strengthen ethics, and reduce consumers’ insatiable demand for precious wildlife.

- Steve Ambrus

Angela Andrade
Ecosystems Department
Environment Ministry
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 340-6274
Claudio Bertonatti
Information and Environmental Education
Vida Silvestre Foundation
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tel: +(54 11) 4331-3631
Richard Bustamante
World Wildlife Fund
Lima, Peru
Tel: +(511) 261-5300/5301
Fax: +(511) 463-4459
Office of Scientific Authority
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
United States
Tel: (703) 358-2095
Pat Fisher
Public Affairs spokesperson
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
United States
Tel: (202) 208-1459
Craig Hoover
Senior Program Director
Traffic North America
Washington, D.C., United States
Tel: (202) 822-3452
Ulisses Lacava
Communications Coordinator
World Wildlife Fund
Brasilia, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 248-2899
Fax: +(55 61) 364-3057
Efrain Marin
Press Spokesman
Colombian Internal Security Service (DAS)
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 429-8280