Illegal Trade in Brazilian Amazon Indian Feather Artifacts

Opening Boxes of Evidence at the Lab

Opening Boxes of Evidence at the Lab

The plain cardboard carton gave no hint of the treasure inside. Wrapped in newspaper, and nestled within the box, it had journeyed thousands of miles, from the remote reaches of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to an art gallery in Gainesville, Florida, before coming to rest here, in the evidence room of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Oregon.

Over the past year, FWS Special Agent Daniel LeClair, posing as a private art collector interested in beautiful and symbolic Amazon Indian pieces, had built the trust of Milan Hrabovsky, owner of Rain Forest Crafts in Gainesville, Florida. In his initial email contact, LeClair claimed he met Hrabovsky at a recent craft market exhibition.

Traditionally, indigenous communities in Brazil’s Amazon used both elaborate and simple feather crowns, headdresses, arm bands, and masks in their ceremonies and celebrations. Young boys wore them when being initiated into manhood; shamans donned them to heal their tribespeople.

At first, collectors had purchased well-used, older pieces, which were valued for their authenticity. As demand blossomed, budding entrepreneurs capitalized on the expanding market, seeking out indigenous communities to make new pieces in the traditional style. They also “spruced up” older pieces, adding large, colorful feathers to make them more striking – and expensive. Today, tourists in Brazil can readily find Indian feather art for sale in museum shops and collectors can easily buy them over the internet. This new industry makes traditional art forms valuable – which could provide much-needed income to impoverished communities. Instead, it often just finances the middlemen.

Rueimon Head Dress

Rueimon Head Dress

The sharp increase in demand for feather pieces threatens their source –the already endangered parrots, macaws, and other birds who sport the exotic plumage. While traditional communities used to keep some types of birds in captivity as a way to retrieve their molted feathers, the practice doesn’t make good economic sense: it’s easier, and cheaper, to just kill them and pluck them bald.

Hrabovsky sent LeClair a photograph of a ceremonial crown. Did those feathers come from a protected species? LeClair needed the crown itself.  So, undercover, LeClair bought and shipped it to the forensic lab. For over a year, Le Clair had struggled to get to this point: now it was up to the lab.