- Brownsberg Nature Park and Central Suriname Nature Reserve are protected areas in the South American nation of Suriname where poaching of jaguars is rife.
- Poachers and opportunistic actors such as illegal miners and loggers kill the animals, strip them of their skin, bones and teeth, and boil the rest of the carcass down into a paste that’s then trafficked to Chinese buyers.
- The poachers have long acted with impunity amid a general lack of monitoring and law enforcement by authorities, but conservationists say the COVID-19 pandemic has made this situation worse.
- Conservationists are working with other NGOs, universities and Chinese representatives on an awareness campaign to end the poaching and trafficking.
In mid-June 2012, a few months after she started monitoring the jaguars inside Brownsberg Nature Park in Suriname, biologist Vanessa Kadosoe saw Amalia for the first time. Through the pictures from a camera trap, she observed the little jaguar cub walking beside her parents, Máxima and Willem Alexander, the monarchs of the jungle until then. Kadosoe had named them after the Dutch king and queen, and because Amalia is the name of the royal couple’s first-born princess, it was only fair that the cub should also bear that name.
For eight years, she watched Amalia grow to become the dominant female jaguar in the central and eastern sectors of Brownsberg, where the camera traps were laid out. But in February 2020, Amalia disappeared. Kadosoe waited a few weeks, which turned into months. Jaguars typically roam large areas of land — up to 500 square kilometers (nearly 200 square miles), so it seemed reasonable to think it might take Amalia a while to circle back. But a year later, Amalia’s whereabouts remain unknown. Jaguars can live to 20 years in the wild, so the disappearance of an 8-year-old animal is suspicious, especially in a region where poachers are known to lurk, and where they have increasingly encroached into since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Amalia isn’t the only jaguar that fell off the radar during Kadosoe’s nine years of research inside Brownsberg Nature Park, where she observed 27 of these big cats. “Between 2014 and 2015, three disappeared: Máxima, Kate and George. Although there may be various reasons for it, at that time we received information that in the town nearest the park, the town of Brownsweg, jaguar parts were being trafficked,” Kadosoe says.
This is just one of the ominous stories about jaguars disappearing in Suriname, even within protected areas such as Brownsberg Nature Park or Central Suriname Nature Reserve. Sources interviewed for this article say this happens in full view of the authorities, who do not have the resources to carry out continuous surveillance. Some sources also blame it on high levels of corruption within the state apparatus.
The lack of oversight has only worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic began; researchers like Kadosoe have found that gold miners and illegal loggers are penetrating into the heart of protected areas, in many cases also hunting the jaguars.
Protected areas in danger
“Our research indicates that the demand for jaguars, particularly jaguar paste, encourages the hunting of this animal, both opportunistic and organized, in and around protected areas,” says Nichola Brischi, one of the few investigators who has comprehensively tracked the trafficking of jaguar parts in Suriname, thanks to her undercover work in 2017 and 2018. “It also occurs near extractive industries such as mining and logging.”
Jaguar paste is a glue-like substance obtained from boiling down an entire jaguar carcass for at least five days. It’s in high demand in traditional Chinese medicine, where it’s said to relieve arthritis and improve sexual performance, among other health benefits, despite zero scientific evidence to support such claims.
Pauline Verheij, a wildlife crime lawyer, tells Mongabay Latam that one of the areas most affected by jaguar poaching is Brownsberg Nature Park and other spots in the west of the country, near the border with Guyana.
“Yes, there are specialist hunters looking for jaguars, but the poaching of jaguars happens all over Suriname, wherever there is conflict with humans,” Verheij says. This is backed by research carried out for the IUCN’s Netherlands office.
Anna Mohase from WWF Suriname says incursions into protected areas like Brownsberg occur because of the easy access that exists to these spaces. “There are incursions by road and by river. The probability of poaching in the parks is high as there is limited surveillance,” she says.
These are just some indications of what is happening inside Suriname’s reserves and parks, and not only targeting the jaguar, but wildlife in general. With a human population of just over 500,000 and forest that extends across 93% of its territory, this South American country still maintains a large, stable population of jaguars. In the past 10 years, however, this stability has been undermined by the trafficking of jaguar parts to Asia. Despite repeated warnings from researchers about the incidence of jaguar trafficking in protected areas, illegal incursions intensified in 2020, according to experts interviewed by Mongabay Latam.
They agree on the main threats to the apex predator: retaliatory killings, people target jaguars for attacking livestock or pets; destruction and fragmentation of jaguar habitat; and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, an activity that has become the primary threat to the feline.
The situation is particularly complex in Brownsberg Nature Park, where these three dangers converge. Created in 1970 and extending over about 12,200 hectares (30,000 acres), the park is used for ecotourism, research and educational purposes. Despite clearly posted signs throughout the protected area stating that prohibit hunting, logging and mining are prohibited, dozens of mining companies and casual workers are concentrated in the west of the park. Thhere, they mine for gold across an area of nearly 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres), according to a WWF study. “This activity has been taking place since the 19th century in the form of artisanal, small-scale mining, and it was decided to allow it following the creation of the park due to unsuccessful attempts to expel the miners,” the study says.
Kadosoe, from Suriname’s Institute of Neotropical Wildlife and Environmental Studies (NeoWild), says that, in 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, miners were spotted processing gold with cyanide, a highly toxic chemical. “The park, which had already started operating for tourists in the middle of the year, was closed again in October for fear of contaminating visitors,” she says. “The mining was being carried out at several waterfalls that formed part of the tourist trail.”
That the miners are using cyanide to extract gold ore shows how deeply entrenched the illegal mining has become in Brownsberg, sources say. During her nine years studying the park’s jaguars full-time, Kadosoe says she’s well aware of the escalation in mining activity, having even documented it through her network of 27 camera traps installed at 16 posts. In December 2020, she was able to identify five people who appeared in images captured by the cameras, walking with metal detectors, rifles and axes.
“Historically, miners and loggers concentrated at the foot of the mountain, but through camera traps we have been able to observe how miners, loggers and hunters even penetrated to the top of the Brownsberg [mountain], to places not even the tourists reach,” Kadosoe says.
She adds it’s difficult to determine how the mining has impacted the park’s jaguar population. The density of the big cats that she’s observed has varied over the years, she says, from 0.51 to 4.21 jaguars per 10,000 hectares. A higher density isn’t necessarily a good thing, she adds.
“What we can see is that when this number grows, it may mean that there are more jaguars in the area, since the space through which they can transit is shrinking,” Kadosoe says. In fact, she says, since 2012, the only unrestricted area for the jaguars to transit out of the park is the south side of Brownsberg, although gold mining activities have already begun in that sector.
Another change that Kadosoe has observed is that jaguars are modifying their habits based on the time when mining and logging activities are being carried out.
“We saw how the animals switched their activities from day to night when the logging started. Then, when the miners began to work at night, they began to be active during the day,” she says. “If we can hear the sound of the machines, then they definitely can. This disturbance does have an impact on the jaguar.”
The proximity of humans to jaguars is also risky because it makes the animals easy prey. When three dominant jaguars disappeared between 2014 and 2015 in Brownsberg — Máxima, Kate and George — Kadosoe began to gauge the severity of the poaching.
“If lots of dominant animals disappear, something is not right. Who can guarantee that they are not being stolen for trafficking?” she says.
For Els Van Lavieren, a researcher at Conservation International Suriname, there’s no question they’re being trafficked.
“All the people who work in logging and mining concessions have said at some point that if they see a jaguar, they will hunt it,” she says.
Conservation International is one of the few organization constantly monitoring indications of wildlife trafficking in Suriname, and Van Lavieren is one of the experts who knows very well what’s going on. She says her experience has shown that another focus of jaguar poaching is in the north of Central Suriname Nature Reserve, an ostensibly protected area of 1.6 million hectares (4 million acres) that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A recent Wildleaks report, published by Earth League International (ELI) on wildlife trafficking throughout the world, also identifies the poaching taking place in the reserve.
“We have information on poaching in the north of the reserve where not only jaguars are taken, but also other animals such as ocelots,” says ELI co-founder and researcher Andrea Crosta. Wildleaks is the world’s first reporting project dedicated to environmental crime, mostly through anonymous tip-offs.
Kadosoe says that what’s happening in Brownsberg, the Central Suriname reserve and the rest of the country has been reported to the Foundation for the Conservation of Nature (STINASU) and the National Institute for Environment and Development (NIMOS), the institutions in charge of protected areas and environmental issues, respectively.
“We have pictures of those entering the area and we report this to the authorities, but there is no follow-up,” she says. Mongabay Latam sought statements from both organizations, but received no response as of the time this story was originally published in Spanish.
Van Lavieren says CI is constantly monitoring jaguar trafficking and notifying the same authorities about potential cases. “But they are not dealt with because funds for conservation are scarce,” she says.
Anatomy of a crime
“The traffickers don’t care where the jaguar comes from. The system is that they will buy all the jaguars that are brought to them,” says Crosta from ELI.
A native Italian, Crosta has tracked wildlife trafficking around the world and since 2018 been battling to get to the heart of the illegal jaguar part trade in South America through Project Operation Jaguar, led by IUCN Netherlands and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). In that time, the project has collected information on what is happening in Suriname, the profiles of those involved, and the methods the smuggling networks use to reach Asia, specifically China.
The first thing that Crosta and other experts interviewed by Mongabay Latam emphasize is that this crime is carried out openly and with impunity. Pauline Verheij, the lawyer, says that although bribes are given throughout the trafficking chain, there’s no need for them. “There isn’t much to cover up,” she says.
Verheij says there’s a longstanding lack of attention to trafficking: as recently as 2003, the buying and selling of jaguar parts was not seen as a crime in Suriname. “When I collected testimonies, I spoke with a former National Forest Service agent who was approached by a Chinese supermarket owner asking for a jaguar,” Verheij says.
The Wildleaks report also highlights the lack of vigilance by authorities in key areas. “Despite having checkpoints, the Police do not search vehicles for illegal wildlife, which facilitates its transportation,” it says. It adds that traffickers use public buses and occasionally logging trucks to transport jaguars to supermarkets.
It is in supermarkets where much of the processing of jaguars takes place for their subsequent smuggling to China. According to Van Lavieren, these grocery stores are owned by Chinese citizens and located in Paramaribo, the country’s capital, and in cities near forest areas. “This mostly happens in western Suriname. When the location is far from the coast, they have to send it by plane,” she says.
In Paramaribo, for example, ELI gathered information about a Chinese supermarket near a large highway suspected of turning dead jaguars into paste. According to researchers from ELI and World Animal Protection, the traffickers first skin the cat, then cut up its body, retrieving its canines and some of its bones. What remains is boiled down in a vat to make jaguar paste, yielding about 20 to 30 jars per cat, according to World Animal Protection.
According to the Wildleaks report, all the buyers of jaguar paste are Chinese, who pay large sums of money for the product. In April 2017, photos of a jaguar were published on Facebook. It was a female weighing about 110 kilograms (240 pounds), and had been killed 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Afobaka airport, near Brownsberg park. When an ELI source tried to buy the animal’s carcass, it was too late: a Chinese citizen had already bought it, just 12 hours after the post had gone up.
At the base of the trafficking pyramid are locals: hunters, loggers or illegal miners who come across an animal and opportunistically kill it because they know there is always a market for jaguars. According to ELI’s initial findings, hotspots have been identified in the towns of Nickerie and Wageningen, in northeast Suriname, and in Klaaskreek, north of Brownsberg park.
Crosta says the next step in the hierarchy is Chinese: the middlemen, the recipients of the trafficked parts, the processors, and the buyers.
“There is something you have to understand. There is no such thing as a Pablo Escobar who manages the wildlife trafficking in Latin America. There are businessmen who deal with legal and illegal matters,” he says.
ELI says its sources have confirmed that trafficking of jaguars is just one of the illicit activities in which many of Chinese citizens are engaged in Suriname. “They are also involved in money laundering, drug and even people trafficking,” the organization’s report says.
While the most common means of trafficking jaguar parts is by air, in carry-on luggage of passengers going to Asia, since 2018 it’s been discovered that many of the trafficked items are also hidden inside hardwood logs that are sent to China by ship. According to the International Timber Trade Portal, in 2018 China was the No. 2 buyer of Suriname’s wood, accounting for more than a quarter of its exports.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerability of the jaguar. “It is hard to imagine that COVID-19 has not had an impact on this animal. Now there are not so many eyes watching what happens in the interior of the country, because there are no tourists,” Van Lavieren says.
Despite this, conservation groups like CI are not standing quietly by, she says. “During 2018 and 2019 we broadcast television commercials on the national and Chinese signals to warn about the danger of hunting jaguars,” Van Lavieren says.
This was done in coordination with Chinese representatives in Suriname, who approached CI with concerns about the trafficking activity. Billboards have also been put up in Portuguese, Dutch and Surinamese. Radio commercials are also running, targeting listeners in the interior of the country.
A group of national and international NGOs and universities are coordinating the creation of a work team on jaguar conservation. These activities will include more monitoring to establish the current population of the big cat and collaboration with the government for technical and operational support.
Anna Mohase from WWF Suriname says steps must be taken to achieve compliance with the law through training, provision of equipment, and recruitment of sufficient personnel for surveillance, which must be increased in the field and at the borders. In the case of protected areas like Brownsberg, biologist Vanessa Kadosoe says it’s important to create a stronger buffer zone.
“If the jaguar disappears from places like Brownsberg, we know for a fact that the rest of the species will too,” she says.
Kadosoe harks back to Amalia, the jaguar she first spotted as a cub in 2012 and who went missing a year ago. She says she hopes Amalia is found somewhere else where she’s safer, and that she hasn’t ended up as the prey of some trafficker.
Banner image of a jaguar by World Animal Protection.
Editor’s note: Mongabay receives funding from the IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands (IUCN NL) for this investigative series into the situation of jaguars in Latin America. We maintain full editorial autonomy, with news decisions made independently and not on the basis of donor support.