- Pepe Lucho, a rare Amazonian rodent kept as a pet, was recently defended by an enraged crowd that attacked law enforcement officials trying to confiscate the illegally held animal.
- Similar events and public perceptions that fail to see wildlife trafficking as a serious crime have caused law enforcement to look the other way when encountering traffickers.
- International wildlife smugglers have been emboldened by public acceptance of the domestic trade in threatened species, say wildlife advocates — doing very serious but largely undocumented harm to Peru’s wildlife.
Last October, a TV report from Peru’s Chanchamayo province depicted protesters swarming the streets, raising their voices in unison chanting: “Pepe Lucho is free! Pepe Lucho will not go!”
The angry dissenters brandished signs professing their disgust with Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR). They even stormed the government agency’s local offices, forcing officials to bar doors and windows to protect their own safety and avoid confronting the raging crowd.
Pepe Lucho, at the heart of so much resentment and controversy, is not a local political figure, celebrated soccer player or even a cherished kinsman. In fact, he is not human, but an over-sized rodent called a pacarana (Dinomys branickii) – a rare animal occurring only in the tropical forests of the western Amazon River basin that was being kept as a pet and tourist attraction.
So why do all those people care so deeply?
The answer lies in the many conflicting beliefs held by the Peruvian public concerning wildlife trafficking laws — with some perspectives born out of monetary gain, others from a love of wild animals long kept as pets, and a “don’t-tread-on-me” libertarian sense of entitlement regarding the nation’s wildlife.
Many conservationists argue that these longstanding public attitudes toward domestic wildlife trafficking intimidate and inhibit law enforcement, thus unintentionally protecting international traffickers who are looting Peru’s wildlife treasure trove. The indifference and corruption of law enforcement are also major factors for inaction.
TRAFFIC — a nonprofit organization that has monitored government responses to wildlife trafficking across the globe since 1976 — has circumstantial evidence to back these assertions. In a compendium of cases with prominent government interventions, TRAFFIC reports only 12 instances in the last 18 years in which any government police force intervened in wildlife trafficking cases involving Peru, at either origin or destination of goods. Of the six cases in which arrests were made, governments other than Peru were responsible for all but one. The remaining four local Peruvian cases not only had no clear arrests, but they also include one case in which a national police aircraft was used to traffic mahogany.
In contrast, a single trafficking study found that an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 wild-caught parrots alone are sold illegally in Peru’s domestic market each year, with detection rates as low as 2.5 and 3 percent for markets in regional capitals. Statistics are scant for mammals, reptiles, tropical fish and other species, though animals are openly traded in many local Peruvian marketplaces.
Outraged pet owners inadvertently aiding wildlife traffickers?
Sam and Noga Shanee, co-founders of Neotropical Primate Conservation, a United Kingdom nonprofit that works in the Amazonas and San Martin regions of Peru, first came to the country in search of the elusive Critically Endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey (Oreonax flavicauda).
It took them almost no time to realize that wildlife trafficking posed a serious threat to wild populations of the primates in the region. So they set up Denuncia Fauna, a campaign that allows people to submit complaints about wildlife trafficking via email, with the assurance of anonymity.
In October 2014, Noga Shanee made an official complaint to authorities in Chanchamayo province, based on an email allegation she received that Pepe Lucho was being abused — despite being a nocturnal rodent, said the complainant, he was made to sit on a chair while tourists snapped pictures for a fee, and encouraged by his owner to feed the animal chocolate and other inappropriate foods.
In a 17 minute in-depth news report by Stephany Bravo of Modo Cine, featured on the news program Al Sexto Día, viewers can watch images of Pepe Lucho wearing sunglasses, sipping drinks, eating ice cream, and being petted by crowds of people, including the reporter herself.
“The officers came because [environmental officials] received a complaint from a female foreigner about how the cages were too small and about his food,” complained Pepe Lucho’s owner Señor Walter in the news report. Walter goes on to tell Bravo that pacaranas eat cacao seeds naturally in the wild, so justifying the feeding of chocolate to Pepe Lucho. He denies accusations of giving Pepe Lucho alcohol, and contends that the small cages are for Pepe’s protection, not his enslavement.
While Bravo’s report largely makes light of Pepe Lucho’s captivity, one fact is clear: the holding of wildlife in captivity without a permit is illegal in Peru. The country is a signatory of CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, which forbids wildlife trade for many rare and endangered species without explicit permits and attention to exportation quotas. The Pacarana is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The force of law did not however give authorities the power needed to confiscate Pepe Lucho. At best, they were able to remove a few of his young progeny to a zoo in Lima, while being doggedly obstructed by the efforts and ire of the people of Chanchamayo.
Noga Shanee told mongabay.com that in addition to failing to confiscate Pepe Lucho, government officials also mishandled her anonymous trafficking report, allowing someone to make copies of her complaint — complete with name, address, phone number and email — and distribute the information to angry protesters. (Denuncia Fauna continues to protect the anonymity of the original complainant).
“For two weeks I received dozens of threatening calls, including some death threats, for several hours a day from different people,” Shanee revealed. These included a warning that she would be made into ceviche, Peru’s iconic dish of marinated cubes of raw fish, if she dared try to separate Pepe Lucho from the town.
“Only the great distance between Junín, and where I live in the Amazon region, is why people have not actually followed up on their threats,” Shanee asserted. “This is why people are afraid to approach environmental authorities and report cases of environmental crimes.”
The Al Sexto Día news program subsequently tracked down Pepe Lucho’s confiscated rodent progeny at the Huachipa Zoo in Lima, and confirmed that the animals could never be returned to the wild. A biologist told reporter Bravo that the overly domesticated young rodents would spend the rest of their lives well fed and cared for, but in a cage.
The seizure of the young rodents further inflamed tensions in Chanchamayo, serving as a catalyst for declarations of enduring affection for nuestro or “our” Pepe Lucho.
Conspicuously absent from news reports was any discussion over the need for the Peruvian public to obey the Peruvian Forestry and Wildlife Law which forbids domestic and international trafficking. In Pepe Lucho’s case, the people effectively silenced and thwarted law enforcement.
Public aggression regarding wildlife trafficking complaints has so intimidated police that they often now ask Shanee to put her name on denuncias, the complaints that the authorities themselves receive.
“For every animal that is kept as a pet, ten more have to die for it to come to a home,” said Shanee bluntly of the trade. She is appalled by what she sees as the authorities’ lax attitude in the face of hostile public opinion. “Even if the animal cannot be rehabilitated to the wild, I would still bring it to a rehabilitation center every single time until the message gets through — wild animals must not be kept as pets.”
The realities of wildlife trafficking in Peru
The federal government does not conduct comprehensive monitoring of wildlife trafficking in Peru, but individual researchers have reported on it for specific taxa and locations. The Shanees, for example recorded 722 encounters with 2,643 animals in the Amazonas and San Martin regions of Peru between 2007 and 2011, as documented in their paper in the Journal Endangered Species Research in 2012.
Of these encounters, 12 percent (315 animals) were categorized as Threatened by the IUCN, including 41 animals that were Critically Endangered. These included 18 San Martin titi monkeys (Callicebus oenanthe) and 23 yellow-tailed woolly monkeys (Oreonax flavicauda), both existing nowhere else in the world but Peru.
The Denuncia Fauna campaign received 74 complaints between April 2014 and January 2015, involving hundreds of cases across Peru, of wild animals being kept in private homes, recreational centers, and elsewhere. Most of these animals were categorized as Endangered and protected by Peruvian and international law. Cases included Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti), night monkeys (Aotus miconax), and even pumas (Puma concolor).
Only rarely have raids revealed large organized trafficking of wildlife. In January 2015, police in Amazonas stopped a car containing more than 650 pihuichos or parakeets, while another vehicle got away with an estimated 450 tropical birds.
“They were sprayed with water, since these birds are quiet when it rains in the wild. They could not be released right away because their wings had been clipped,” revealed Shanee, who arranged for their transfer to Rescue Center Chuyachaqui, after the authorities requested Neotropical Primate Conservation’s help in rescuing the birds — an increasingly common occurrence.
In fact, this reporter’s interview with the Shanees was interrupted when Sam Shanee received a call to go and collect a red-tailed boa constrictor confiscated by the authorities and requiring his handling expertise. No one knows how many large-scale illegal international wildlife trafficking operations are at work in Peru.
“There is a lack of education on [wildlife trafficking] so many [people] do not see any wrong in having a wild animal as a pet,” Olivia Conrads told mongabay.com. “I think many think that if they are sold so freely in the market, it must be legal. There is a lack of control so traffickers can take the little risk involved.” Conrads runs Esperanza Verde, a wildlife rescue center in the Department of Ucayali in eastern Peru. She agrees that public naiveté may benefit criminal traffickers who, in many cases work openly, in defiance of the law.
“The traffickers are becoming smarter. Instead of trying to move large numbers of monkeys, we think they recruit women and children to transport them [falsely] as pets,” said Shanee. If these wildlife-mules are stopped, which is rare, they claim amidst tears that they rescued the animals and raised them by hand as beloved family pets.” Given the current climate of public opinion in Peru, police hesitate to make arrests, or even part the “pets” from their alleged owners.
Inés Nole, a Peruvian wildlife veterinarian with extensive experience working in wildlife rehabilitation centers, agrees with Shanee that authorities are unlikely to intervene in such cases. “Normally if a cop sees someone with a wild animal, I think they will not do anything about it. Rarely can you see police impound an animal unless they are from the ATFFS [Forestry and Wildlife Management],” said Nole. “What’s more, I would never think that a policeman would even say something if they see a woman or a child with a wild animal. Every time I’ve wanted to ask for help from the police to confiscate an animal, they tell me they cannot do that; I think even if they could, they do not care or do not know that [keeping] the animal [in captivity] is illegal.”
A failure to act to protect wildlife
Peru has a long history of hunting, trapping, selling, owning, and utilizing wild animals, typically treating them as a natural resource — an attitude commonly found across many societies. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Peru served as one of the largest wildlife exporters in Latin America. Large-scale trapping programs provided animals for biomedical research in the United States, and excess animals were sold in local markets. This ongoing trade may have fostered a false confidence and complacency regarding the inexhaustible supply of wild animals found in Peruvian forests.
Conrads offers another explanation for the fondness for wildlife as pets. “People just like to have something special, and a young monkey or ocelot just seems so nice,” she said. “People often do not think long-term; even with normal pets, like dogs and cats. This is still a problem. It is too easy to exchange them. If one dies, just take another.”
Nole believes that the practice could also have originated from the large migration of people from the rainforests to the coastal cities. “For most people from the jungle it has always been just normal to hunt animals for food, including monkeys, and if the animal was a breeding female, her infant was used as a pet,” said Nole.
Nole, Conrads and Shanee all agree that domestic trafficking practices have gone unpunished for so long, that most Peruvian people now view wildlife in the pet trade as something quite natural — and legal.
Meanwhile, modern hunting practices, which feed the wildlife trade, are also likely having a strong impact on forest populations, even changing the forest landscape. A 2008 study of contiguous forests in southeastern Peru, in which primates had been hunted with firearms for 30 to 40 years, revealed a predictable loss of large-bodied primates, accompanied by a surprising subsequent 46 percent decrease in seedlings of primate-dispersed trees. “This opens the possibility of shifts in tree species composition, even in hunted forests that are not logged or fragmented, towards forests dominated by trees dispersed by wind or non-game animals,” note the authors. The loss of other mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds to trafficking may be having similar impacts on forests, but such research is currently lacking.
Yet, there continues to be a pronounced resistance on the part of the Peruvian government to crack down on crimes involving wildlife, which is particularly disconcerting in view of the extent of the trade.
In the city of Lima alone, officials confiscated 17,932 live animals and 81,564 animal products between 2000 to 2007. Nearly half of the live animals they found were birds, primarily of the family Psittacidae, which contains 150 species of parrots within 32 different genera. Amphibians and reptiles represented most of the other half, and a small number (5.6 percent) were mammals. More recently, 13,033 live animals belonging to 51 species were confiscated across the nation between 2009 and 2012.
These appears to be large numbers until you again consider that an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 wild-caught parrots alone are sold illegally in Peru’s domestic market annually according to one study, with detection rates as low as 2.5 percent for markets in regional capitals.
“The transport police have the authority to confiscate animals, but usually don’t look for wildlife. And often animals confiscated by police are later sold, or traffickers are allowed to pass after paying a bribe,” Shanee asserted. Indeed, arrests for trafficking are staggeringly infrequent, compared to estimates of the widespread nature of the trade.
Moreover, punishments for wildlife trafficking in Peru are minor compared to other nations. For example, an aquarium firm caught illegally exporting over 1,000 reptiles and amphibians from Peru in 1997, paid a fine of just $5,400. By comparison, Tim Eaton of Florida, president of a Peruvian export company, spent two years in jail and paid $25,000 in fines when convicted in the U.S. in 1993 for smuggling 144 snakes, including anacondas (Eunectes murinus) and red-railed boa constrictors (Boa constrictor ortonii) into the U.S. from Peru.
The International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) recently used Peru as a test case for its wildlife and forest crime analytic toolkit, an exhaustive inspection of trafficking of natural resources.
“The impunity with which crimes are committed, particularly trade in species of flora and fauna, is evident. Markets operate in full view of the authorities, which rarely seize or confiscate goods,” states the report. “The efforts of the authorities have barely any effect, owing mainly to limited resources and logistics.”
Even if enforcement authorities do respond to a trafficking complaint, said Shanee, “they are ineffective because they do not have the right cages to transport animals, and they are often outnumbered by the crowd.”
As with the case of Pepe Lucho, this can result in a standoff between law enforcement and the public. When SERFOR officials received reports of a spectacled bear dying of pneumonia, and of allegations of illegal zoos, they tried to confiscate two Near Threatened Andean condors (Vultur gryphus), two Vulnerable spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus), and a Near Threatened Sechuran fox (Lycalopex sechurae ), among other animals from captivity in Sandia in the Cuyo Cuyo district. However, members of the general public interceded and resisted.
Five officials, reports say, anesthetized the birds, and were then accosted by “peasant patrols” that allegedly kidnapped the officers. The peasant patrolmen reportedly beat the SERFOR men in public in the main plaza, and accused them of being robbers and not providing signed documents, a charge SERFOR denies. Fearing for their lives and the safety of the animals, SERFOR returned all the animals to the “zoo” where they had been held captive.
The ICCWC recommends a complete overhaul of protocols for detecting and prosecuting wildlife crimes in Peru.
Perceptions of wildlife trafficking in Peru
In the face of governmental failures, it is increasingly NGOs who take on the role of curbing the illegal wildlife trade. A recent analysis of 28 NGOs concerned with conservation and/or animal-welfare, reveals the perceptions of activists, on whom so much responsibility now falls. Interviewed NGO representatives identified government prioritization of timber crimes as being more important than wildlife trafficking crimes — along with government corruption — as the two major impediments to trafficking law enforcement.
“The Dirección General Forestal y de Fauna Silvestre (DGFFS), you know the nickname don’t you?” asked one NGO interviewee in the study. “It’s the Dirección General de Falcificación, Fraude y Soborno [General Directorate of Falsification, Fraud and Bribery]. And, I mean it’s true. It has to be the most corrupt place in Peru.”
“We are a megadiverse country,” said another interviewee, “and all of our biodiversity is passing through the markets.”
With proposed government trafficking regulations that will enforce Peru’s Forestry and Wildlife Law (29763) now very near approval, Shanee worries that the rules may do more harm than good. She suspects that, in order to cut down on illegal trafficking, Peru will simply increase its options for the legal extraction of wildlife from its forests — flooding the market with legal wildlife, and likely increasing peoples’ affection for wild animals as pets.
Countries like Peru “don’t invest in investigation or offer creative solutions to wildlife trafficking, but they enthusiastically adopt philosophies [for] privatizing nature and let market forces control the future of wildlife, hoping things will get better by themselves,” Shanee writes in a report she titled Lazy Conservation. “The problem with this logic is that… the sacrifice of animals legally exploited is added to the ones illegally hunted or traded, and permits are often used to launder illegal trade.”
If trafficking continues to be tolerated by the public, benefiting an out of control illegal trade, Shanee and other conservationists worry that many of the nation’s remaining wild animals could suffer Pepe Lucho’s fate — until one day, the only place to find wildlife in Peru will be in a cage.
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