The trade in wildlife species — especially birds — is a booming business worth an estimated $19 billion annually; only surpassed by drug and arms trafficking.
In El Salvador’s San Salvador Central Market, threatened parrots, macaws and other “Nicaraguan products” are openly sold, though authorities make occasional raids.
Most birds are captured when still “squabs”. Their hunters climb trees to catch the young in their nests. Typically transported in toilet paper tubes, most die in transit, but survivors still provide big illegal profits.
In the last five years, the Salvadoran environmental police have moved in occasionally to inspect the Central Market. Nearly every raid results in the confiscation of a few species that are close to extinction, especially psittaciformes: parrots, parakeets and macaws. In April 2012, 58 birds were rescued; in March 2014, 32 more; in March 2015, 23. According to the estimations of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (known as MARN), more than 300 birds are confiscated every year. Some are released into the forest; some others are rehabilitated in an animal shelter in the west of El Salvador. No one knows how many birds and other animals escape the notice of police.
Recently the MARN set up fences in San Salvador emblazoned with the image of a Red Macaw and a message: “9 out of 10 animals trafficked illegally die in the journey. Avoid buying them.” However, the trade continues.
In the market for a monk parakeet
It is a scorching October morning and the Central Market is seething with the hustle and bustle of human activity. In the animal section, the voices of people and the jabbering of three Crimson-fronted Parakeets (Aratinga finschi) mix together.
According to Carlos Hasbún, a biologist from the Zoological Foundation of El Salvador, “this parakeet is not native to El Salvador, it was introduced illegally.” The species’ home range is in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Here, they are exhibited discreetly among other animals — budgerigars (parakeets commonly kept in the U.S. and elsewhere as pets), guinea pigs and cats — whose overcrowding and trade is sanctioned by the authorities:.
“How much are the monk parakeets?” we ask.
‘$60, each. They are talkative and they still have to grow. Take the opportunity because they sell fast,” whispers the grey-haired seller.
“From what part of El Salvador do they come?”
“No. These ones come from far away. A woman brings them from Nicaragua,” the vendor tells us.
In the Central Market, monk parakeets and macaws are sold as “Nicaraguan products” par excellence. They are considered exotic and sell at a high price. Macaws have been declared extinct in El Salvador. “The last [in the wild] was reported in 1926; it was probably visiting the country. There are no later formal records,” explains Oliver Komar, a North American biologist based in El Salvador and Honduras.
Among the Central Market traffickers
Leonor Bonilla is famous in the Central Market. Her popularity doesn’t only come from having sold Nicaraguan birds for the biggest part of her 72 years. In 2011, she was prosecuted for “plundering protected fauna” with the sale of Tovi parakeets (Brotogeris jugularis) and other parrots. In 2013, she repeated the offence and was sentenced to conditional release. She still works in the market, but she only trades in legal birds.
According to Bonilla, the most sought-after bird is the Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao). She “thinks” that there is a merchant who offers them — discreetly — far from this market.
In 2013, Jorge Ulloa Sibrián, a well-known Salvadoran drug dealer, was sentenced to prison. Soon after, the environmental police forced entry onto his ranch in the outskirts of San Salvador. They found a huge cage filled with macaws and toucans, possibly Nicaraguan, with an estimated worth of $2,000. All were stolen.
Néstor Herrera — the MARN biologist in charge of issuing permits for the possession of wild animals — says that “Ulloa Sibrián wasn’t ostentatious with his pets,” because he has had the chance to meet other Salvadorans who spend more. He knows of macaws “brought to the country legally” (though they’d really been trafficked) for up to $5,000 that live in cages that are worth upwards of $10,000.
Macaws are extremely birds with traffickers, leading to some surreal seizures. Last month, an employee of the Salvadoran zoo was caught trying to steal macaws from the aviary. Five years ago, the same macaws were stolen by two zoo security guards and recovered by police. According to prosecutors, the zoo employees intended to sell the macaws abroad for $10,000 each.
The magazine Insight Crime reports that a major network of animal traffickers who sell animals to Mexico, the U.S., the Netherlands and even Australia operates in the Guatemalan region bordering with Belize and El Salvador.
Five years ago, the Central American Commission on Environment and Development traced the trafficking journey for wildlife in the region: it often begins with capture in Nicaragua’s rainforests, followed by transit to El Salvador and Guatemala; and from there to Mexico and the United States.
It’s easy to understand the lure of the pet trade in Central America: the minimum wage in El Salvador — what the arrested zoo employees earned — is $251 per month. The minimum wage in Nicaragua is even lower, $181 monthly. Obviously, $10,000 for a single Scarlet Macaw is a lot of money and a lot of temptation.
So, not surprisingly, “Wildlife trafficking is one of the biggest businesses in the world; it is only surpassed by the traffic of arms and drugs,” says Marina Argüello, president of the National Zoo of Nicaragua. A mural in her office features Nicaraguan fauna, including a predominant flying macaw.
Nicaragua, a nation moving toward stewardship
Marina Argüello is a pioneer in environmental stewardship, which she sees as critically important in Nicaragua. The country’s very rich biodiversity contrasts sharply with its high poverty index — which explains the boom in trafficking.
In 1997, Argüello took charge of the zoo with an annual state budget of just $765. She says that, at the time, few children visited the zoo and when they did, they would sometimes fire their slingshots at macaws and alligators. “Slingshots and the trade of wild animals have always existed,” Argüello reflects. “Humans are animals with perverse habits.”
A few years ago, explains Argüello, the Nicaraguan street vendors that sold tropical birds under the traffic lights in Managua disappeared. Today, the country is swimming in the bountiful waters of ecotourism. The images of native parakeets and macaws — featured prominently in the media — strengthen Nicaragua’s new “green tourism” message, just as happened in neighboring Costa Rica. Even the historic pier of Managua has been brightened up with the inclusion of statues of the country’s tropical birds.
Nicaragua’s trafficking problem
“Poaching has been reduced, but that doesn’t mean it’s over,” notes Marvin Tórrez, a biologist in the Central American University in Managua who specializes in the habitats of tropical birds.
Tórrez is not optimistic for the future. He is convinced that psittaciformes, such as the yellow-naped parrot, will have trouble surviving due to the destruction of their habitat. Only 17% of Nicaragua is protected within natural areas, and those protections don’t guarantee that the rainforest is free from illegal logging and poaching.
Tórrez says Scarlet Macaws are becoming scarce in Nicaragua. Hunting has been intense, especially in the south, in the San Juan River watershed, as well as in other areas. Once captured along the San Juan River, the birds are transported 300 kilometers (186 miles) away where they are sold in Managua’s East Market, an impenetrable tangle of venders where you can supposedly buy any animal alive “à la carte”. Nicaragua’s birds are also transported nearly 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away to San Salvador. Argüello believes that trafficking to El Salvador began to boom once that nation adopted the dollar in 2001.
The long journey to San Salvador’s Central Market puts the birds under tremendous stress, taking them through the driest region of Honduras, a transit country. Traffickers try to make the birds invisible. The fragile creatures are smuggled in the bottom of boxes, bags and baskets. They are forced to ingest alcohol or sleeping pills called “bromazepam” so that they won’t make noise and attract Honduran border officers. But sometimes the birds speak out. In 2011, parrot screeches betrayed the driver of a Nicaraguan truck to police. His vehicle was loaded with Yellow-naped Parrots, most of them young squabs, which were confiscated.
“The 118 parrots were rescued among the carcasses of ten other parrots that died asphyxiated or crushed during the journey to El Salvador. The merchants estimate that their earnings will compensate for these deaths or losses. A Yellow-naped Parrot can cost more than $100 in San Salvador,” Argüello relates.
In August of this year, the Honduran authorities arrested a Nicaraguan who was trying to smuggle a bit of everything into El Salvador: 14 Yellow-naped Parrots, four Toucans, four White-headed Capuchins and two Macaws, a red one and a green one. All of these animals are threatened or endangered.
The Green Macaw may have come from as far as the Atlantic coast between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Its iridescent feathers, along with the myth of its being nature’s most intelligent bird, have made it a high-value target for traffickers. So much that it has been declared “in risk of disappearing” by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
According to Argüello, most birds are trafficked when they are still “squabs.” Hunters climb trees and take the young birds from their nests. The fledglings are often transported inside toilet paper tubes. Most die in transit.
The Nicaraguan Zoo to the rescue
To deal with the trafficking, Argüello decided to go a step beyond what is expected from a zoo. In 2011, supported by the North American embassy, she created an “animal rescue center”. Today, her zoo exhibits animals that have been confiscated by the authorities. Currently, her zoo receives an average of one thousand confiscated animals per year: orphan jaguars, ocelots, and undernourished macaws that were fed only on corn dough by traffickers.
“Animals should live in nature, but sometimes zoos are the only option to reproduce and reintroduce species,” Argüello says.
Tropical birds just like these are regularly sold in the Central Market of San Salvador, and/or transported on to U.S. and European pet lovers: parrots plucked from nests in the rainforests of Nicaragua, birds that have suffered unfathomable tragedies.