Site icon Conservation news

Finally, Latin America is tackling wildlife trafficking (commentary)

  • On October 3-4, a High Level International Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade in the Americas will take place in Lima, Peru. This is the first-ever such conference organized exclusively around wildlife trafficking in the Americas, with particular focus on South and Central America. Why has it taken so long, and why is it so important?
  • Latin America is the single most biologically diverse region in the world, and trade in its wildlife, including illegal trade, is not a new issue. Latin America’s unique and precious wildlife has endured threats from illegal and unsustainable commercial trade, both domestic and international, for decades—and in some cases, even longer.
  • There are still large intact forest and grassland habitats across the region, and populations of species that can either be maintained or restored, if strong action is taken today. Preventive measures can and must be taken now, to ensure that Latin America’s wildlife thrives, from Mexico to the tip of Patagonia.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

I’ve been working on combating the illegal and unsustainable international wildlife trade for more than 30 years. There have been successes and setbacks along the way, but I can say with confidence that without the tireless efforts of many government officials, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, scientists, academics, and local communities, far more species would be extinct or critically endangered due to illegal trade in wildlife than we see today.

Wildlife trafficking is insidious — threatening species, ecosystems, sustainable development, and the safety and livelihoods of local peoples; it is a serious transnational crime that contributes to and is driven by corruption.

There is a treaty, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), that focuses on international wildlife trade; there have been high-level international conferences on wildlife trafficking; the UN has adopted resolutions on the issue; and many governments and organizations are working to combat wildlife trafficking.

On October 3-4, a High Level International Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade in the Americas will take place in Lima, Peru. This is the first-ever such conference organized exclusively around wildlife trafficking in the Americas, with particular focus on South and Central America. Why has it taken so long, and why is it so important?

Latin America is the single most biologically diverse region in the world, and trade in its wildlife, including illegal trade, is not a new issue. Latin America’s unique and precious wildlife has endured threats from illegal and unsustainable commercial trade, both domestic and international, for decades — and in some cases, even longer.

Yet things are changing. With increasing pressure from the global pet and collectors’ trades for unique live animals, increasing online commerce in wildlife parts, and increasing commerce between Latin America and Asia, wildlife trafficking is increasing in the region along with the engagement of organized criminal networks.

Scarlet Macaw. Photo © Julie Larsen Maher-WCS.

Latin America may not have the elephants, rhinos, tigers, and pangolins that so many governments, international bodies, and organizations focus on. However, illegal trade of the unique wildlife of Latin American to Europe, the US, and Asia is significant, from jaguars to macaws.

There are many threats to species, including from climate change and habitat loss. In addition, for many species of parrots, primates, frogs and lizards, illegal trade is emerging as the primary threat to their survival. Increasing market demands for Latin America’s wildlife and wildlife products are driving increased illegal trade. In Peru alone, more than 90,000 illegally traded live specimens were confiscated between 2000 and 2018, according to the official database of the country’s National Forestry and Wildlife Service.

But there is good news: South and Central America’s wildlife species still have a fighting chance. Wildlife trade and trafficking in Latin America have not reached the crisis levels that they have in Southeast Asia and Africa. There are still large intact forest and grassland habitats across the region, and populations of species that can either be maintained or restored, if strong action is taken today. Preventive measures can and must be taken now, to ensure that Latin America’s wildlife thrives, from Mexico to the tip of Patagonia.

The Conference in Lima will be hosted by the Government of Peru and supported by a wide range of governments and organizations, including the Wildlife Conservation Society. It will address these issues, and the governments attending will hopefully make strong commitments to treat wildlife crime as serious crime, to treat it with the highest priority, and to enhance their legislative, enforcement, prosecutorial, and cooperative efforts.

As an example, the jaguar is the most iconic species of the Americas, ranging from Northern Mexico to Argentina. It is vital as an apex predator and fundamental to the natural and cultural heritage of the peoples of the region. There are many threats to the jaguar, and WCS and other organizations are working with our government partners and local actors to address all of those threats.

However, we are now seeing increased poaching of jaguars for illegal trade in their teeth, largely to meet demand in Asian countries. I hope that, coming out of the Lima Conference, there will be increased commitments to actions to help put an end to the threat of poaching of jaguars and trafficking in their parts.

I did my PhD research on the amazing and beautiful amphibians and reptiles of a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica, and I am saddened by the fact that all too many of those species, including poison dart frogs, are taken from the wild illegally and sent to pet markets across the world.

Seeing individuals of species that I studied in the wild being taken illegally and ending up in pet shops breaks my heart. I hope that the discussions at the Conference in Lima will be a major step in galvanizing actions and motivating governments to work together to ensure that those species, and so many more, will continue to thrive in the rich and varied habitats of South and Central America.

Jaguar. Photo © Roberto Lorenzo.

Susan Lieberman is Vice President for International Policy at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.