Journey to oblivion: unraveling Latin America’s illegal wildlife trade

 / Laurel Neme

75 to 90 percent of trafficked animals die during transport, but profits are so lucrative that criminals continue emptying Latin America’s forests and oceans.

  • The trafficking of elephants in Africa has gained tremendous media attention. Not so the illegal trade in birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and fish of Central and South America, a problem of epidemic proportion.
  • The trafficking routes — out of rainforests and natural habitats, through local markets, to border crossings, airports and seaports, and on to consumers in the U.S., Europe, China and elsewhere — are shrouded in secrecy.
  • Latin American trafficking laws are weak and full of loopholes; few traffickers are caught, and when they are, they are often given a slap on the wrist. Stricter laws, enforcement, and penalties are needed, before it is too late.

The endangered Hyacinth Macaw is highly coveted by traffickers and collectors. Photo by Juliana M Ferreira.

Wldlife trafficking transit chains in Latin America are complex, secret, and as varied as the many common and threatened animal species targeted. After poachers illegally pluck wildlife from their habitats, the animals are passed on to middlemen, who move them along clandestine routes before selling them to anonymous consumers at home or abroad.Traffickers involved in the international trade frequently smuggle contraband across poorly secured borders into neighboring countries that lack strong trafficking laws, with the animals, or animal parts, shipped overseas from there.

Routes and smuggling techniques shift regularly as traffickers play a cat-and-mouse game with enforcers. When one method is discovered by customs officials — such as sewing tiny tropical parakeets into a garment worn on a plane — smugglers contrive another to move their illegal cargo — maybe using a “mule” or local person to claim a valuable monkey as a “beloved pet” as a means of moving it across a border and into the lucrative pet trade.

A parrot vendor offers the camera a big smile. Many local market dealers don’t see wildlife trafficking as wrong, and local authorities seem to agree; police often stroll through markets without making any arrests of illegal traffickers. Photo by The Photographer made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Comprehensive data on the illegal wildlife trade in Central and South America is incomplete in every country, and nonexistent in some locales. The records on seizures that do exist are often sketchy, and only identify the last country of export; they fail to determine the route of travel, the nation or habitat of origin. While a single wildlife hunter or smuggler might be captured, the middlemen and crime syndicates behind the trade are largely unknown and go unpunished.

“The war is being waged at the wrong level. Relentlessly pursuing the ‘army of ants’ — the individual poachers, transporters, corrupt customs officials — has little impact on the global trade in illicit environmental products,” says a recent report on trafficking from Interpol. “The individuals most responsible for organized, transnational environmental crime, and those having the greatest influence over its execution are arguably those who profit most from it. Yet there have been precious few arrests and convictions of known environmental crime controllers.… This group of criminals exists at the heart of environmental crime, functioning as pivots within networks of individuals around the globe who commit individual criminal acts at various nodes in the chain.”

The bottom line: the lack of data concerning the shadowy Latin American wildlife trade hamstrings efforts to combat it in countries that face Herculean challenges ranging from weak, loophole ridden trafficking laws; tiny enforcement budgets and few police; major government corruption and payoffs; and the impossibilities of patrolling vast swathes of remote habitat, largely open borders, and urban exit points where thousands of airline flights and container ship sailings occur annually.

A trade as varied as the species that drive it

Transit routes and destinations for the illegal trade in Central and South America tend to follow broad patterns based primarily on the species and their end use.

Live animals — such as tropical birds and fish — intended for the pet trade must obviously be handled more carefully than those animals that are valued for their parts — such as caimans whose skins are used in the U.S. and European fashion industry, or turtles whose shells are crafted into combs and other tourist souvenirs.

An Arboreal Alligator Lizard (Abronia graminea) – endemic to the highlands of the states of Veracruz and Puebla, Mexico, and popular with traffickers. Photo by Derek Ramsey under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Live birds are the most frequently trafficked live animals in Latin America. A wide number of species are desired as pets both domestically and abroad. Songbirds, such as finches, Green-winged Saltators and Double-collared Seedeaters, used in singing competitions often (but not always) end up in the country where they’re caught. Larger birds, like parrots and macaws, are often sold in quasi-legal city markets or smuggled abroad, with the United States and European countries top destinations.

A crocodile ashtray from Latin America, confiscated upon arrival in the United States. Photo by Laurel Neme courtesy of the USFWS forensics lab

Reptiles are also very popular with U.S. and European customers, who seek out unusual animals and uniquely colored morphs as pets. The illegal reptile trade targets rare and endemic species like iguanas and arboreal alligator lizards.

“There are 18 species of spiny-tailed iguanas from Mesoamerica, of which 13 are endemic to one country or another,” notes Juan Carlos Cantu, Program Director for Defenders of Wildlife’s Mexico Office. “At least 5 species of endemic arboreal alligator lizards from Mexico has been documented in the EU and USA. Illegal trade in these rare species is increasing.”

Recent cases illustrate the smuggling of endemic reptiles from Latin America. In September 2015, a Mexican man was detained for smuggling nine marine iguana babies and two juvenile land iguanas by air from the Galapagos islands. He was part of a broader ring of traffickers led by an American. In September 2014, Costa Rican police stopped a German man smuggling 170 tropical frogs, snakes and lizards out of the country.

Some animals are valued as food, with Asian consumers driving the illegal trade for many marine species. Swim bladders of Mexico’s Endangered totoaba fish, sea cucumbers and shark fins are all seafood delicacies in China. China is also a key market for other wildlife parts, ranging from turtle eggs to jaguar claws and tropical timber such as rosewood.

From rural points of origin to urban points of sale

Large domestic and foreign markets drive the illegal trade for pets. It is believed, for example, that the majority of illegally captured birds remain in their country of origin. In Mexico, about 90 percent of illegally trapped parrots stay there, according to a 2007 study on The Illegal Parrot Trade in Mexico by Defenders of Wildlife. It’s the same in Brazil, where 60-80 percent of illegally caught birds supply the home market.

“That means we, Brazilians, are responsible for most of the country’s black market in live birds,” says journalist Dimas Marques, who runs Brazil’s Fauna News website.

Caiman purse confiscated in the U.S. Photo by Laurel Neme courtesy of the USFWS forensics lab

Within each country, animals are typically captured in remote rural regions where they live and are then driven or paddled to urban areas, where the consumers are.

In Brazil, wildlife is typically collected from the biologically-rich parts of the nation in the north, northeast and Midwest, then moved to cities in the southeast, south or northeast.

Blue-fronted Amazons s (Amazona aestiva), for example, are captured from nesting areas in the Cerrado, a savannah area in Mato Grosso do Sul state in the midwestern part of Brazil. From there, they’re shipped to São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for sale.

The endangered Lear’s Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari) is targeted at its nesting grounds in Raso da Catarina National Park in Bahia in northeastern Brazil, and then smuggled abroad.

“After being captured, the animals commonly pass through small and medium traffickers who make the connection with Brazilian and international large dealers. These animals can then be sold in numerous venues, such as at pet shops or illegal fairs and through the Internet,” writes Guilherme Fernando Gomes Destro and his co-authors in a book chapter entitled Efforts to Combat Wild Animals Trafficking in Brazil (also in Portuguese). Destro is an environmental analyst for IBAMA, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources.

The postal service and express delivery services are also frequently employed to transport illegally captured live animals and animal parts. Because in Brazil, like elsewhere, it is legal to ship packages not closed at the postal service desk, no one knows what is in a package, so pretty much everything can be shipped easily and only a small fraction of illegal items are caught.

Porous borders, points of exit

Animals that are to be sold abroad are often smuggled into a neighboring country before being sent to their final destination.

For instance, much of the animal trade in Central America flows through El Salvador. Cynthia Dent, Humane Society International’s Regional Director for Latin America, notes that a 2009 study uncovered that many animals were routed through that country, and calls it a “‘bridge to export’ on the way to Europe, the U.S. and Mexico.”

Operation Pindorama by the Brazilian Federal Police resulted in the seizure of over 1,000 trafficked items, including this necklace made from 44 jaguar teeth and a jaguar skull. Photo courtesy of the Brazilian Federal Police

Mexico is another trafficking hub. It is both a consumer of wildlife from other Latin American countries and a transit point to multiple destinations in the United States.

In Brazil, border areas are particularly porous. Outlets for the international illegal trade tend to be in border cities in the north, midwest and south, as well as from ports and airports in the north, northeast, south and southeast.

Of particular concern, as identified by Destro et al, are the tri-border area of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina; Iguacu National Park; towns close to the Uruguay border (especially Laranjeiras do Sul and Santana do Livramento); and areas along the BR-116 and BR-101 roads in the Bahia region.

“The north of Brazil has thousands of miles of border,” says Carlos Abreu, an environmental analyst with IBAMA, Brazil’s national environment agency. “It is easy to cross, there’s not a good control of it, and, in those countries — Guyana, Venezuela and Colombia — it’s easier to smuggle wildlife out.”

A Brazilian snake transported inside a jar — 75 to 90% of trafficked animals don’t survive the ordeal. Photo by Juliana Machado Ferreira

Illegal wildlife traffickers often map out the path of least resistance and risk: routes and points of exit with the least oversight and enforcement. When, for example, an American snake breeder wanted to illegally export a one-of-a-kind leucistic boa constrictor (which he called Princess Diamond) out of Brazil, he began by testing several ship and plane routes, before finally crossing into Guyana and flying out from there.

In both Guyana and Suriname, smuggling appears to be easier due to a lack of government monitoring. “There’s very little inspection or screening of passengers and their luggage and cargo at the airports and land border posts,” explains Kelvin Alie, Wildlife Trade Program Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “We believe these are significant pathways by which live and dead products exit the country.”

Suriname’s direct flights to the Netherlands provide convenient, low risk access to Europe. Authorities in Amsterdam have seized crates of smuggled animals, including caimans, snakes and songbirds, from Suriname multiple times. No one knows how many such shipments go undetected.

Another common smuggling technique is to ‘launder” wildlife before selling it, moving it through another country’s legal captive wildlife trade. This can be facilitated by fraudulent paperwork that misidentifies a wild-caught animal as captive-bred so that it can be part of a permitted shipment.

Sometimes a captured animal from an illegal jurisdiction into one where it is legal. Wildlife contraband such as turtle eggs and bushmeat, for example, are often smuggled from the independent country of Suriname into French Guyana, an overseas territory of France, where it then becomes a domestic issue for law enforcement in Europe, explains Alie.

Final destinations

Europe and the U.S. rank as top destinations for birds and reptiles, with animals destined for the pet market flowing through particular countries, states and ports of entry. France, Portugal and the Netherlands, for instance, are top destinations for birds from Brazil.

Birds are the most trafficked animals in Latin America. They are often moved around the country in small cages like this one. Photo by Juliana Machado Ferreira.

“Portugal has a very open [import] policy with little supervision, which provides an easier entry into Europe,” explains Carlos Tavares da Costa, an agent with the Brazilian Federal Police. “Many [smugglers] also leave the State of Amazonas and enter into Guyana.”

Live reptiles often end up in Germany, where reptile trade shows offer a key mechanism for moving rare animals to collectors throughout the world. While collecting these species from the wild and exporting them is illegal in the countries of origin, once they reach Europe they can be freely bought and sold without any crime being committed. A November 2015 investigation of the quarterly Terraristika fair, the world’s biggest reptile fair, in Hamm, Germany, by The Guardian newspaper proved that traders exploit legal loopholes and routinely sell endangered reptiles from Latin America and elsewhere.

It’s similar in the United States, where once an animal is in the country it is easier to sell. Key U.S. entry points are the Latin American border states of California, Florida and Texas. A 2015 report on Combating Wildlife Trafficking from Latin America produced by Defenders of Wildlife analyzed seizures of illegal wildlife shipments of CITES and ESA species from Latin America to the U.S. and found that the five most frequently used trade routes were out of Mexico into either El Paso, Texas, San Diego, California, or Louisville, Kentucky; and from either Haiti or the Bahamas to Miami, Florida.

Wildlife is transported out of rainforests and other habitats to roads, where the animals are often transferred to cars or trucks and driven to urban markets. The intense tropical heat and stress of being in an enclosed car trunk can easily kill fragile wildlife, but traffickers accept the losses since they stand to make big money on the animals that do survive. Photo by Juliana Machado Ferreira.

Routes varied by product, with queen conch shipments going from Haiti to Miami; sea turtle, caiman and crocodile parts moving from Mexico to El Paso; and iguanas and their products often going from Mexico to Los Angeles. It’s important to note that Mexico is often not the sole source of this trade, but is rather the last country of export, with much of the trade coming from somewhere else in Central or South America.

The China connection

Over the past several decades, wildlife traffickers have ransacked the ecosystems of Asia, Oceania and Africa in search of dietary delicacies such as shark and sea cucumber to meet the insatiable hunger of newly affluent Chinese consumers. More recently, those raiders set their sights on Central and South America, scouting coastal waters and the high seas for high-priced culinary delicacies.

While sharks (whose fins are used in shark fin soup) are geographically diverse throughout Latin America, totoaba is a fish isolated to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Its swim bladders are worth more than cocaine, and sell for up to $125,000 per kilogram in China, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

The source of sea cucumbers going to China has expanded dramatically, from 35 to 83 countries in recent years according to a study in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, with several Latin American countries now acting as unwilling but key suppliers.

Brazilian authorizes conducting a wildlife trafficking raid and seizure. Brazil Photo by Juliana Machado Ferreira

Illicit harvesting of sea cucumbers has exploded along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where criminal networks are reportedly moving into the business. In September 2014 high profits led to competition between rival gangs in Yucatán and Campeche, according to Mexico News Daily. And Milenio reported that armed men stole 3.5 tons of well-secured dehydrated sea cucumbers in a high-stakes heist in April 2015.

Ecuador is another key source, though some of its coastal and Galapagos Island fisheries are largely fished out. In June 2015, close to 11,000 sea cucumbers (263 kilograms or 580 pounds) were seized at the San Cristobal airport in the Galapagos.

Surprisingly, sea cucumbers and totoaba bound for Asia are often channeled through the United States, with southern California a common and convenient transit point. In January 2015, a San Diego court charged a Chinese-American with smuggling $3 million worth of illegal seafood from Mexico to China — including nearly one ton of sea cucumbers and 58 totoaba swim bladders.

The identification of trafficked animal parts isn’t easy. This USFWS forensics lab cat claw standards board identifies cat claws from species all over the world — including jaguars from Latin America. The board is used to match up and identify confiscated cat parts. Photo by Laurel Neme courtesy of the USFWS forensics lab

Sea turtle eggs from Mexico and elsewhere also end up on restaurant menus in China. The Mexican government is now using drones to spot would-be “hueveros” (egg robbers) at the Morro Ayuta beach in Oaxaca state, and to monitor the Gulf of California, where illegal fishing for totoaba is wiping out the nearly extinct vaquita porpoise which is being caught in illegal fishing nets.

Terrestrial animals are also being harvested for the China trade. In Bolivia, jaguars appear to be targeted for their teeth and skins. According to media reports, seven recent cases involved jaguar fangs destined for China. One Chinese citizen was caught in Bolivia with parcels containing 105 fangs from at least 26 jaguars. Another was caught smuggling a parcel containing 24 fangs from six wild cats.

An April 2015 analysis by Marilyn Choque in La Razon suggested that Chinese investment in Bolivia jumpstarted the illegal trade in jaguars. “It is the Chinese who are encouraging low-income people to kill our jaguars,” Daniel Manzaneda, coordinator of the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development (Fobomade) was quoted in the report. He pointed to the recent arrival of seven Chinese companies contracted for large public works projects near Bolivia’s natural areas as a major catalyst. It “means the arrival of large numbers of Chinese citizens who not only demand products from wild animals, they are [also] potential marketers,” he said.

China and the timber trade

China’s desire for timber is helping strip Latin America of its forests. Red woods, such as rosewood, are especially desirable. Furniture made from these trees is seen as a sign of status and wealth, and offers a connection to the past.

Brazilian Federal Police make a raid on an illegal logging operation. Photo courtesy of the Brazilian Federal Police

Rosewood is used in traditional Chinese furniture making and is sought-after by many families. During China’s communist regime, production of luxury items stopped so rosewood furniture was passed from generation to generation. Today, however, markets have opened up, creating a new demand.

“Many want to recover their tradition and have luxury items, so they feel entitled to get the raw material, regardless of regulations,” explains María Elena Sánchez, President of Teyeliz, a Mexican NGO and Species Survival Network regional coordinator for Central America and the Caribbean.

Different species of rosewood can be found throughout the world, and many have attracted smugglers. The wood resists rot and has a nice finish, which reduces the need for sanding. It’s used not only for furniture but for instruments, too. While there are many reports on how China’s red wood furniture craze is fueling illegal logging in Africa and Asia, that trade is also now hitting Central and South America.

Sanchez recalls a conversation with a forest inspector working in a remote jungle of Guatemala, who told her how, “Chinese entrepreneurs pay peanuts for the wood. They cut it and ship it out, without asking permission from anybody.”

Brazilian rosewood is a very profitable trafficked tropical wood. These rosewood lab standards are used by the forensics lab to help identify confiscated shipments. Photo by Laurel Neme courtesy of the USFWS forensics lab

In December 2014, Hong Kong authorities seized 92 tons of illegal rosewood. A report in the Honduran newspaper El Heraldo said that much of that illegal wood came from Honduras, although the shipment was exported from Mexico.

Tracking trends, taking action, before it’s too late

A multiplicity of traffickers, routes and destinations means that targeting any one will have limited impact. If a single route or market is closed, traffickers easily shift to others. Clearly, a well organized, well funded, international effort will be needed to break the back of the criminal organizations trafficking in Latin America’s wildlife.

The multiplicity and secretiveness of smuggling routes also muddies data collection, which must be compiled from numerous places, and it seriously hinders the ability to release confiscated animals back into the wild.

Authorities typically seize animals far from where they were captured and there’s little information on their origin. As a result, rehabilitators can’t release them for risk of introducing diseases or other problems into existing populations.

Juliana Machado Ferreira in DNA lab. She is conducting genetic studies to help identify where confiscated animals may have originated to identify poaching hotspots and to assist in the return of animals to the wild. Photo courtesy of Juliana Machado Ferreira

“We can’t just send them back anywhere,” said Juliana Machado Ferreira, now Executive Director of Freeland Brasil. Freeland Brasil is a counter wildlife trafficking organization, working on different fronts, and directly involved in the establishment of a regional wildlife enforcement network (WEN). Several years ago Ferreira worked with SOS Fauna and undertook pioneering DNA research on songbirds in Brazil’s illegal wildlife trade with an eye toward being able to return confiscated birds back into the wild.

“If we inserted them into just any population, that population could receive new strands of [disease-causing] bacteria,” she says. “If we mixed animals that come from distinct populations, we may create a problem concerning the genetics. We may make the population weaker. We may end up doing more harm than good.”

If the booming illegal trade in Central and South American wildlife is to be curbed, dramatic and decisive action must be taken. And a research, enforcement and rehabilitation infrastructure will need to be created to effectively do the job.

“We don’t have good, reliable data,” notes Ferreira. “It’s very frustrating. We know it’s there. We know it’s big. We just don’t have the numbers and statistics to prove it. And when we do, it may be too late.”

A Galapagos Marine Iguana. The Galapagos Islands host a huge number of endemic species, which makes the islands and the reefs around them very popular hunting spots for traffickers. Photo by Brian Gratwicke licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Article published by Glenn Scherer on November 16, 2015.