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Wildlife for sale: Is it possible to win the fight in Ecuador?

  • The most trafficked wild animals are macaws, parrots, parakeets, monkeys, turtles and boas.
  • These species can be trafficked alive. Body parts like skin, fangs, claws and even tissues are also traded, especially abroad.
  • According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the illegal wildlife trade generates revenues ranging between $7 billion and $23 billion per year.

Juan Manuel Carrión recalls that 30 years ago he was one of the first to warn that wildlife trafficking would become a major threat to Ecuador’s biodiversity. “A foreigner would come and train local people in certain techniques,” Carrión, a biologist and the director of the Zoological Foundation of Ecuador, told Mongabay-Latam. “They provided mist nets and the locals were given the mission of capturing wildlife.” At that time, Andean cocks-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus) were the main victims.

For each Andean cock-of-the-rock that survived forced captivity, twenty died in transit. “We sounded the alarm about this, and denounced it,” said Carrión. More recently, he said, this situation has improved due to an increase in anti-trafficking controls and, above all, because many communities have become aware of the impact the wildlife trade has on their environments.

Despite this, between 2003 and 2013 the Wildlife Unit of Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment reported the confiscation of nearly 8,000 trafficked amphibians, birds, mammals, fish and reptiles. The recent figures, although part of a preliminary report, suggest the problem persists: in 2014, 1,684 specimens were confiscated and in 2015 around 222.

Wild animals rescued by the Wildlife Unit of Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment. Photo courtesy of Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment

Tricks of the trade

Once removed from their habitats, animals can be trafficked alive; however, on many occasions, only certain parts are marketed. Charapas turtle eggs are particularly popular, along with the heads, horns, claws and fangs of various species that are then sold as ornaments. “The dynamics of trafficking depend on many variables, but the main one is demand,” said Karen Noboa, an official of the Wildlife Unit of the Directory for National Biodiversity of the Ministry of Environment.

The appetites and requirements of this illegal market can sometimes astound even experts. “We’ve had cases of people in the East (of Ecuador), who have particular culinary traditions and who want certain parts of animals that are endangered, such as a gallbladder,” recounted Noboa.

Wild animals rescued by the Wildlife Unit of the Ministry of Environment. The charapas turtles and their eggs are among the most traded on the illegal market. Photo courtesy of Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment

In addition to live specimens and animal body parts, the Wildlife Unit has also detected trafficking of biological samples, such as tissues that are sent abroad to be included in scientific collections. “It’s to get access to genetic resources,” explained Noboa. “That’s a bit more complicated because we are just now considering it a crime.”

A lucrative business

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the wildlife trade generates revenues ranging between $7 billion and $23 billion per year, making it the world’s fourth most influential illicit activity, after the illegal trade of drugs, arms and human trafficking.

Regional and international traffickers operating in Ecuador have established a network of people, called “extractors,” who are experts in hunting and know the location of animals and the type of traps needed to remove them from their natural habitat. “These extractors are the lowest paid parts of a long chain,” Noboa said. “When (the species) arrives at an international destination, the price is twenty or ten times greater than the payment received by the person who killed it or simply removed it.”

White-fronted capuchin (Cebús albifrons aequatorialis) rescued by the Wildlife Unit of the Ministry of Environment. Photo courtesy of Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment

Despite this, extractors are key elements in wildlife trafficking — without them intermediaries and large traders would not be able to access the animals’ habitats.

Both Noboa and Carrión agree that this illegal activity has the same structure as drug trafficking operations, or is somehow related to them. Indeed, a few years ago Carrión and his Zoological Foundation’s team received 100 confiscated Pacific parakeets (Psittacara strenuus) that had been confiscated by the police during an anti-drug operation. The birds, common in the subtropical ecosystem of Ecuador, were then released into The Lalo Loor Dry Forest Reserve, located in the province of Manabí, on the Ecuadorian coast.

However, this is not the only way in which traffickers camouflage species in captivity. Often, animals are hidden inside PVC pipes, especially insects or small parakeets or parrots. Others are concealed under clothing. “Amphibians are very easy to transport. Some are very small and, and are simply taken in cloth covers,” Noboa said.

Confiscated Pacific parakeets. Photo courtesy of the National Biodiversity Institute

The Wildlife Unit has confiscated lepidopterans and hummingbirds that are important for scientific collections in other countries.

In the case of birds, parrots and macaws are the most trafficked species, while popular reptiles include boas, charapas turtles and their eggs. Among mammals, primates are often taken as pets. Most animals destined for traffic come from the Amazon, especially from Orellana, Napo and Sucumbios, although activity has also been detected in Esmeraldas and, to a lesser extent, in the subtropical zone of Imbabura.

Although domestic controls on wildlife trafficking have increased, Noboa explained that the difficulty comes when traffickers reach international border areas, especially the one with Peru. The sale of live animals on the street is poorly regulated there, Noboa said, “something that does not happen here in Ecuador.” Article 247 of Ecuador’s Integrated Organic Criminal Code (COIP) allows for the punishment of people involved in all stages of illegal wildlife trafficking.

The silvery woolly monkey (Lagothrix poeppigii) is one of the species targeted to be sold as pets. Photo courtesy of the National Biodiversity Institute

Since August 2014, “persons who hunt, fish, capture, collect, remove, take, transport, traffic, benefit from, exchange or commercialize, specimens or parts of thereof, or the constituent parts, products, and derivatives, of wild flora or terrestrial, marine or aquatic fauna, migratory, threatened or endangered species,” can face one to three years in prison.

The Wildlife Unit has found it difficult to determine the main wildlife sale destinations. However, based on internal records, they believe China, Japan and Thailand could be the primary market for these species. Europe and the United States are also on the list.

Efforts to protect wildlife

One of the institutions that supports the preservation of wildlife in Ecuador is the Zoological Foundation, through its management of the Guayllabamba Zoo. “Our zoo cares for animals that have suffered from human activity, from trafficking or even animals that have been kept as pets,” explained Carrión. “Our purpose is to combat illegal trafficking of animals.”

This spectacled bear, also known as ‘Yumbo,’ was rescued and released in the area of Northwest Quito. The bear’s collar contains a satellite tracker that monitors his activity and ensures his survival. Photo by Max Araujo, Project Assistant of the Zoological Foundation

So far in 2016, this institution has received 113 animals that have been rehabilitated through veterinary care and surgical interventions. Despite wanting to reintroduce these species to their habitats, zoo specialists often do not know where these animals come from or the degree of their human dependence, two factors that influence the ability of the animal to readapt to their natural habitat.

“Not even 4 percent of animals are successfully reintegrated into their natural habitat,” Carrión said. “Reinserted animals usually are raptors, sloths, anteaters and porcupines, but they are a minority.” The turtle is one of the species that most frequently arrives at the Guayllabamba Zoo, and according to Carrión, it is “now the animal most trafficked in Ecuador.”

This hawk arrived with an exposed wing fracture. Doctors had to cut part of the bone and immobilize him for the wound to recover. After a long time, the bones re-knit, the wound healed and today the hawk can make short flights of 1- 2 meters. Photo courtesy of the Zoological Foundation

Another institution involved in protecting species is the National Institute of Biodiversity, which works with the DNA Bar Codes project. Still in the development phase, this project seeks to create a library to identify the species subject to illegal trafficking and use this information as evidence in judicial proceedings.

“So far it has formed a database of 200 threatened or commonly trafficked species,” said Diego Inclán, Director of the National Institute of Biodiversity. “They are all priority due to the critical condition they are facing.” To determine this initial list of species, experts involved had to look into the official records of the Ministry of Environment.

This global project, managed by the Smithsonian Institute and the Consortium for the Barcode of Life, has already been implemented in Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, South Africa and Nigeria. Ecuador is the only country in Latin America to join.

Despite the situation, everybody agrees that education is the best way to combat wildlife trafficking. “As people learn about and appreciate their heritage, they will tend to fall less into aggression against their natural heritage,” said Carrión.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on October 18, 2016.

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