When Brazilian federal police last month cracked down on an international wildlife trafficking network, they found fresh evidence of the organization, reach and environmental destructiveness of such rings.
The Federal Police, whose role is similar to that of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, sent 450 officers to nine states to arrest 73 alleged participants in the enterprise. The crackdown, called “Operation Oxossi” after an African god said to protect animals, produced the highest number of such arrests in a single day in Brazil. It also marked one of the largest confiscations of contraband animals—832—in a single day.
Federal police suspect the network had sold as many as 500,000 animals a year, including some endangered species, and brought in at least R$20 million (US$8.5 million) annually. The animals came from nine states where the ring operated, in particular the eastern Amazon state of Pará; the western states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, home of the Pantanal floodplain; and a portion of Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest.
The Federal Police arrested one Rio de Janeiro resident from the Czech Republic whom it accuses of being a ringleader. It also issued arrest warrants for 20 other suspects in Brazil. And with the help of Interpol, authorities in Switzerland, Portugal and the Czech Republic, the three countries where most of the ring’s wild animals were sent, are investigating five suspected ring members in those countries.
The 73 people arrested during Operation Oxossi included hunters and smugglers, as well as officials with a transport company and five military policemen who allegedly facilitated the illegal movement and sale of the animals.
Of the 832 animals seized, 95% were songbirds or larger parrots, toucans and macaws. Half of the parrot, toucan and macaw species represented among those seized are threatened with extinction. The remaining 5% of animals taken by police were reptiles, including rare iguanas and boa constrictors.
“A bust this big shows how extensive and organized animal trafficking likely is and indicates we are probably looking at the tip of the wildlife-trafficking iceberg,” says Alvaro Palharini, head of the Federal Police’s environmental crime division. “The proliferation of these criminal rings poses a threat to Brazil’s biodiversity, one that could be irreversible since trafficking rare species leads to their extinction.”
A rare macaw such as the giant blue macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) can net smugglers up to R$100,000 (US$43,000) per bird. In December, federal police at Rio de Janeiro’s airport arrested a Swiss man headed for Geneva with 10 giant blue macaw eggs in a specially designed pouch strapped around his waist. His body heat was incubating the eggs.
Most of the foreign-bound contraband—mainly small, colorful songbirds and rare, squirrel-sized tamarin monkeys—are fed powdered sleeping pills or tranquilizers, and put in closed and perforated PVC tubes, which are hidden in the false bottoms of suitcases. Boa constrictors are also highly sought because they make no noise and can survive for up to four days in a non-perforated box, which can be express-mailed overseas.
Brazilian transporters arrested during the recent bust had brought animals from as far away as the Amazon and the Pantanal wetlands to Brazilian coastal cities where some would be smuggled to Europe by plane, mailed there or sold locally on the black market. Many truck drivers hide animals in cargo areas in perforated boxes mixed with other boxes or camouflaged by produce, or in wooden crates fastened above their trucks’ axles. Heat and a lack of fresh air and water cause up to 80%-90% of such smuggled animals to die in transit, according to the Federal Police.
Confiscated animals are sent to 20 recuperation centers nationwide run by Ibama, the Environment Ministry’s enforcement agency. They are separated into two groups: animals that need time and nourishment to recover, and those whose injuries are so severe they cannot be freed. About 20% of the confiscated animals die in the recovery centers.
Last month’s arrests and seizures culminated an investigation that began early last year. Federal agents infiltrated the ring by contacting its lower-level members at produce fairs where the wildlife is sold, following trucks suspected of transporting poached animals and intercepting e-mails and tapping phones of ring members.
“This was the most successful, most coordinated Federal Police bust of a wildlife trafficking ring I’ve ever seen in Brazil,” says Dener Giovanini, president of the National Network to Combat the Traffic of Wild Animals (Renctas), a Brazilian non-governmental group that fights such smuggling. “But to end such trafficking, people have to also stop buying these animals as pets. That’s because supply will dry up only when demand does.”
Wildlife trafficking is a US$20 billion-per-year business and the world’s third biggest black market behind the drug and weapons trades, according to the United Nations.
Renctas estimates that Brazil accounts for $2 billion a year, or 10%, of the world’s illegal wild-animal trade. It says some 38 million wild animals, including insects, spiders and ornamental fish, are illegally captured in Brazil. The 10% that survive, Renctas says, arrive in precarious condition. That’s especially the case for animals sent to foreign nations, which buy 40% of Brazil’s black market wild animals. (See “Brazil looks abroad for help to fight illegal animal trade”—EcoAméricas, Feb. ’06).
The Environment Ministry has published a list of 627 animal species that are endangered in Brazil. That’s three times the number of endangered species listed 15 years ago.
“The loss of habitat, mainly through deforestation, is the main reason the number of endangered animal species is growing,” says Julio Roma, a technical assistant with the ministry’s department of biodiversity conservation. “But wildlife trafficking is another reason why more and more species, especially rare birds, are becoming endangered.”
- Michael Kepp