In Peru, the 67,874 animals have been confiscated from traffickers over the last 15 years. A national strategy to combat wildlife trafficking exists on paper, but it has not yet been approved by the government.
In Bolivia, wildlife trafficking threatens jaguar populations (between 2014 and 2016, 337 fangs were seized). Awareness campaigns have been launched by the Ministry of Environment and Water, local governments, and NGOs; however, a comprehensive strategy does not exist.
In Colombia, 5,060 wildlife traffickers have been detained so far in 2016. To identify confiscated wildlife species, the Humboldt Institute has generated DNA barcodes, a valuable tool not only for environmental and judicial authorities but also for the academic community.
In Ecuador, about 8,000 animals were seized in 10 years. State and private institutions have joined forces to address this problem and apply a landscape-management approach to the conservation of threatened wildlife.
The Mongabay-Latam team spent weeks investigating the illicit world of wildlife trafficking. Officials, specialists and lawyers helped this group of journalists reveal how this illegal market works, which species have the highest demand, where trading routes and extraction points are found, which countries buy wildlife products and what techniques traffickers use. They carefully followed every link in a chain that threatens the lives of thousands of animals in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
In this article, specialists analyze the situation in their countries, consider whether a national strategy truly exists and assess how Latin America is affected by wildlife crime — the fourth most profitable illegal activity in the world after drug trafficking, arms and human trafficking.
Peru: strategy ready but not approved
During the past decade, 383 species of wildlife have been trafficked in Peru. The five regions most impacted by this illegal activity are Loreto, Ucayali, Madre de Dios, Puno and Tumbes. The situation in Peru is complicated; in the last 15 years, 67,874 animals have been confiscated, and the country is home to about 64 species of animals in danger of extinction.
Mariana Montoya, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), pointed out that the wildlife trade in Peru is not a just recent phenomenon. “It’s a problem that has existed for a long time, but historically it has received little attention from authorities and the general public. One important reason for this neglect was the lack of knowledge that existed. Now, it has greater visibility, people are becoming more aware of what it implies, the authorities have better information and are much more committed,” Montoya explained. She added that the primary cause of this illegal activity in Peru is the demand for wild animals as pets.
For José Luis Capella, director of the Forestry Program of the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law (SPDA in Spanish), wildlife trafficking has two facets: environmental and social. In case of the former, he said, “The most important impact is on the conservation of biological diversity, but mainly on the health of ecosystems. Wildlife is a vital natural resource that helps the resilience of forests and the environment after impacts such as climate change, as well as the impact of illegal activities such as deforestation due to land use change, logging and illegal mining.” The social impact is linked to the loss of flora and fauna, especially for indigenous peoples living closer to the forest. “It affects people whose livelihood depends on forests and healthy ecosystems and also suppliers of ecosystem goods and services,” he said.
Capella emphasized the need to improve the control of illegal trade routes. “They are not adequately controlled, and the demand for these specimens is high and continues to increase. Of particular concern are those classified as threatened or endangered species, according to the Supreme Decree 004-2014-MINAGRI and to any of the three annexes of the CITES Convention,” he said.
Mongabay-Latam asked both experts about the status of the “National Strategy to Reduce the Illegal Traffic of Wildlife by 2021,” prepared by more than 17 public and private institutions. They said this tool has not yet been approved by the government. “The pending issue now is that, because it is a strategy that involves different sectors of the Government, it must be approved by a Supreme Decree; so, I take this opportunity to encourage relevant sectors and President Kuczynski to approve it,” said Montoya.
Capella agreed. “It is a strategy that marks the first step toward fully addressing the problem of trafficking; it is expected to be finally approved and implemented by competent authorities,” he said.
Finally, the director of the WCS Peru reveals that, to date, not a single person involved in the trafficking of wildlife has been imprisoned. Montoya told Mongabay-Latam fines for committing this crime can exceed 19 million soles (more than 5 million U.S. dollars). “There are legal tools, but it is a complicated process because it is multisectoral: the police, prosecution, Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Authority (SERFOR) and other authorities must act together to prevent, control and inspect illegal trafficking of wildlife. A significant void is the lack of public prosecutors specialized in environmental issues and environmental lawsuits at the national level,” Montoya said.
Bolivia: Crime without punishment
The problem of wildlife trafficking has become more urgent in Bolivia due to the impact this activity is having on jaguar populations. Between 2014 and 2016, 337 fangs were seized, implying that 85 of these felines had to be killed, according to authorities in the Andean country. Most of these specimens were taken from the Madidi National Park and the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Communal Land, located in northern La Paz.
However, the list of trafficked animals is much longer and shows a problem that dates back many years, biologist and former director of the Friends of Nature Foundation of Bolivia, Humberto Gómez, told Mongabay-Latam. “Wildlife trafficking has always been a problem in the country. Perhaps it is now more visible due to those cases of jaguars hunted to traffic their body parts, but we should not believe that it is something recent. There is no quantitative information on its magnitude or its impact, but it should be enough to read about the operations that are carried out and the seizures of live animals and body parts covered in the press (especially in Santa Cruz and Beni), to understand that it is a serious problem,” he said.
Although wildlife crime is a latent threat to Bolivia’s biodiversity, Gómez said he has no knowledge of the existence of a national strategy to address the problem. “Awareness campaigns have been launched by both the Ministry of Environment and Water and the local governments, as well as campaigns by some NGOs. But a comprehensive strategy to deal with traffic as such? I am not aware it exists,” said the expert.
We asked Gómez about legal tools aimed at punishing offenders. He explained that although last year two vicuña hunters were sentenced to three years in prison, those are exceptional cases. “Most cases do not end with sentences or administrative sanctions due to the excessive procedural burden that exists in the country, and because this problem is not treated as ‘serious’ it is not given an adequate follow-up,” he told Mongabay-Latam.
Colombia: Science as an ally
In the first nine months of 2016, 5,060 wildlife traffickers were been detained in Colombia, according to the national police. In these interventions, 6,878 Colombian sliders (Trachemys callirostris), 1,505 iguanas (Iguana iguana), 1,144 red-footed tortoises (Chelonoidis carbonaria) and 22,837 alligators or caimans were confiscated. Authorities determined that half of the animals trafficked were extracted from five Caribbean departments: Magdalena, Sucre, Bolívar, Cesar and Córdoba.
We asked Hernando García, director of the Humboldt Institute, about this problem. “This traffic is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss due to the overexploitation that affects the population of many species. It can also affect even the ecosystems to which these species belong, and the traditional ways of life of communities that depend locally on them,” García explained.
However, García believes there are creative ways to counteract this problem, such as the sustainable exploitation and legal trading of the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) by the local communities of the Cispatá Bay in the department of Córdoba. “This initiative was even approved in a plenary session at the last CITES meeting of the Conference of the Parties held in South Africa, which ratified the proposal for the legal trade of the American crocodile by ranchers, as a result of 15 years of research and conservation efforts for the species by different actors in the region,” he said.
These alternatives must be accompanied by the implementation of the National Strategy for the Prevention and Control of the Illegal Trafficking of Wild Species, García said. He also noted the Humboldt Institute is “supporting the Ministry in the development of a tool that is not yet available online, but that will allow the integration of all the information generated by the authorities on traffic of species in a standardized way with affordable and available data in real time.”
The entities responsible for surveillance and control in Colombia urgently need training to facilitate the identification of commonly traded species, especially those that are endangered, García added. “The Humboldt Institute has initiated discussions with Regional Autonomous Corporations, the Environmental Police and other key stakeholders to bring together research into species’ unique genetic identifiers (genetic barcodes) and the monitoring and control of trafficking in flora and fauna species in the country,” García said, pointing out the importance of science in the control of the wildlife trafficking business.
Ecuador: how to fight the problem?
During the decade between 2003 and 2013, about 8,000 animals were seized from Ecuador’s illegal wildlife market. Today, it is known that the country’s most trafficked animals are macaws, parrots, parakeets, monkeys, tortoises and boas. There is also a high demand for animal body parts such as skin, fangs, claws and even tissue. Experts say Ecuador’s situation is less complicated than that of countries like Peru and Colombia.
“From time to time they find small numbers of birds and detect attempts to take reptiles from the Galapagos Islands,” explained Hugo Arnal, director of WWF Ecuador. “But even in its worst times, the market in Ecuador could not compare with Leticia in Colombia or Iquitos in Peru. Many practices that remain prevalent in those countries disappeared in Ecuador many years ago.”
This project works with 18 “focal species” (12 mammals, four birds, one reptile and one fish) that “face serious threats to their conservation” and “require urgent strategies to ensure their survival in the medium and long term,” Arnal explained. The project aims to select priority areas for the protection of these populations and considers, among other points, the implementation of “coordinated institutional actions for the reduction of both hunting and illegal wildlife trade.”
Regarding the existence and application of legal tools to combat this illegal activity, Arnal said the country does apply the sanctions stipulated in article 247 of the Criminal Code, which set a custodial sentence of one to three years for wildlife trafficking. “There have been several recent cases of application of this penalty to Ecuadorian citizens and foreigners, especially with the traffic of Galapagos species, and the hunting of Andean bears and jaguars,” stated Arnal.
A regional view
Experts highlighted the importance of coordinated work among countries and the implementation of control strategies in border areas. “The impact of this illegal business affects all the countries of Latin America in a similar way,” argued José Luis Capella of Peru’s SPDA.
Mariana Montoya of WCS Peru agreed with Capella, pointing out that the failure to control the wildlife trade puts the region’s biodiversity at risk. “Latin America has several of the most biodiverse countries in the world, so it is not a coincidence that it is also one of the regions where there is more illegal trafficking of wildlife. It is a priority to start working on collaboration between countries to address this threat, especially in border areas and within the framework of existing binational agreements,” she stated.
Hernando García of the Humboldt Institute said understanding the real dimensions of wildlife trafficking in Latin America starts with evaluating three aspects: “the overexploitation of species, ecosystem functioning and, finally, sustainability based on the use of species as ways of life.” He also recommended assessing whether the use of a particular species is sustainable, and evaluating if it is carried out through “articulated work between the academy, environmental authorities and local populations.”
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on October 20, 2016.